Iowa's last chance to break through a roadblock

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The road losses pile up like a stack of head-shaking “what ifs” for the Iowa men’s basketball team.

Wisconsin’s Tre Jackson drills a 3-pointer bounces twice off the rim, then off the backboard to tie the game. Iowa guard Josh Oglesby’s 3-point attempt looks good, then rattles out at the buzzer. Wisconsin wins in double overtime.

Minnesota Austin Hollins knocks down a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left to beat the Hawkeyes. Nebraska rallies from a 19-point deficit. If only Devyn Marble’s floater at the buzzer would have drifted in at Purdue. A 13-point, second-half lead against Michigan State melted away in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.

Each of these losses formed the heartache that kept Iowa (23-12) from reaching their goals this year. The Hawkeyes were 2-8 in true road games, a point coach Fran McCaffery concedes kept the team from the NCAA tournament.

Iowa faces its last true road test this season Wednesday at Virginia (23-11) in an NIT quarterfinal (6 p.m. ESPN2). The winner gets a trip to New York’s Madison Square Garden. The loser deals with its final case of heartbreak this year.

Virginia has won 19 straight home games, including all nine in ACC play. Among the victories include Duke and North Carolina. The loss, strangely enough, was to Delaware (19-14). It’s a test, maybe the final exam for an Iowa team hoping to show it can close out a game on the road.

“We haven’t been a great road team. We have to become one,” McCaffery said. “I think if you’re looking at why we weren’t in (the NCAA tournament), that’s probably why we weren’t in. You can argue it, but I prefer to address it and try to work at it and get better. So this is a great opportunity for the young guys to go and compete at that level against that quality of a team on the road.”

The losses have built character but not doubt among Iowa’s players. Iowa junior Melsahn Basabe said he understands the difficulty of winning on the road. But he also respects the journey the program has taken in his three seasons from 11 wins to 23.

“I think what makes our team appreciate that even more is the fact we’re rising, we’re climbing,” Basabe said. “I know how it feels to be at the bottom and lose eight straight and get blown out. This year, even though we’ve had a pretty good year, we feel like we’ve lost so many heartbreakers and stuff. So I think this team has an appreciation level and keeps that in the back of our minds that you can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. We could have gotten low at points, but we never did.

“Obviously we’re always reminded not to get too high because we’ve seen things not go our way in the balance. So I think that part of us as a team that we experienced and matured into, that’s helping us now. But we’re don’t want to beat ourselves anymore.”

That’s been a big problem on the road for Iowa. Late-game offensive execution has waned and turnovers increased. Even in a two-point road win against Penn State, the Hawkeyes forfeited two double-digit leads to hold on.

A quality win for Iowa at Virginia would break through the roadblock and give the team a chance to play on a major stage and validate the progress under McCaffery. It also could push Iowa toward national respect.

“It would be a tremendous step for the program,” McCaffery said. “It would give us another opportunity to play two more games in the greatest venue in all of sport. For our maturity, for our growth, for our young guys, it would be a tremendous feeling.”

It also could benefit the program in the future.

“Hopefully, it will enable us throughout this experience, extra practices, extra games, extra opportunities just to continue to grow,” McCaffery said, “to get better and feel more confident and keep us hungry as we continue to go into this spring and summer, our foreign trip and into next season.”

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