Iowa back on track after sluggish start to basketball season

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IOWA CITY — Three weeks ago Iowa’s men’s basketball program was mired in a slump that stripped away nearly all the momentum it had gained during the off-season.

The Hawkeyes had lost five of seven games and stood 5-5. Each of those losses came by double digits and competing within the Big Ten seemed an enormous task for Iowa.

But Iowa’s players recognized why they had lost those games. During a four-game stretch that netted three losses, former all-Big Ten freshman member Melsahn Basabe totaled just eight points and 11 rebounds. As the Hawkeyes languished at 5-5, Basabe was honest about his sluggish performance as well as his team’s efforts.

Basabe was asked if he could have predicted the Hawkeyes would start the season 5-5. Without hesitation Basabe said, “If you would have told me the reasons why we were 5-5, yeah.

“If you don’t defend the 3-point line, with some of the performances I’ve turned in, then it does make sense,” he said. “It’s not really that hard to see why we’re 5-5. So from that perspective, if you would have told me what our issues were, yeah, I would believe it. But if you told us we were 5-5 and that would be our best output, I wouldn’t believe it because that wouldn’t be true.

“We’re a way better team than our record shows and we keep saying that but at some point, we’ve got to get it done. That’s the next and only step: getting it done.”

Over the last five games, Iowa has got it done. The Hawkeyes (9-6, 1-1 Big Ten) have won four of their last five, including a 72-65 upset of No. 11 Wisconsin at Kohl Center. Iowa has outshot its opponents in all four wins after giving up some horrific defensive numbers in the team’s early defeats this season, such as 62.2 percent shooting to Campbell, 59.4 percent in the first half to Iowa State and 55.2 percent overall to Creighton.

Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery praised the team’s work ethic during the slump. He said the players just needed confidence.

“We’ve got good kids in the program; they’re going to keep fighting,” McCaffery said. “Our team was sideways at both ends of the floor.

“They needed to get their feet underneath them. There’s a lot of things that have to take place in the course of a very long season. I think that’s what you see. In terms of anything that we did specifically, we just kept working. We insisted that they keep working. They keep believing. We believe in them. They believe in each other.”

McCaffery said there are other factors as well, such blending freshmen like Josh Oglesby and Aaron White with a veteran lineup. Health was a major issue early on with Andrew Brommer suffering a preseason knee injury, both Devyn Marble and Bryce Cartwright experiencing head injuries and Basabe trying to drop some of the 25 pounds he had gained in the off-season. Cartwright also had a hamstring injury.

But Cartwright’s injury gave Marble an opportunity, too. Marble ranks second in the Big Ten with assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.23, ninth in overall assists per game at 3.7 and 23rd in scoring at 11.1 points. Cartwright, who led the Big Ten in assists during league play last year, ranks sixth in that category. McCaffery will continue to begin the game with Marble at the point, but Cartwright will see plenty of action and the two will play together.

The Marble-Cartwright combination also helps the offense run more effectively and allows Iowa to use its depth.

“Marble’s emergence as a legitimate big-time scorer really changes a lot of things,” McCaffery said. “And you couple that with Bryce’s improvement; certainly Matt (Gatens is) rock solid. Eric May’s solid, and then you have Basabe and Aaron White and Zach McCabe is much better. We’ll get some buckets out of Andrew Brommer and Gabe Olaseni and Archie. We’ve got three players we can rotate at that position ...”

There still are major issues remaining for Iowa, which travels to Minnesota on Wednesday. The Hawkeyes rank last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (70.5 per game) and field-goal percentage defense (44.3 percent). Iowa also has to deal with the success that follows knocking off a high-powered opponent. McCaffery allowed the team to celebrate the Wisconsin win for one day, then started preparing for the Gophers.

“I’ve said this over and over: you never get too high or too low,” he said. “We had a big win Saturday, but it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to come back and have the same kind of effort on the road in a very difficult environment (Wednesday) night so we’ll see if we have the maturity to handle that.”

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