Iowa players clear their heads, look to Tennessee
Hawkeyes face Volunteers in First Four game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio
IOWA CITY — In the wake of their upset Big Ten Tournament loss to Northwestern, Iowa players took two days off to clear their minds and get away from basketball.
It was necessary for their mental health. The Hawkeyes (20-12), once ranked 10th nationally, had lost six of their final seven games. They dropped heartbreakers to rivals Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois during that stretch. Despite a halftime lead at Michigan State, they once again got pushed around in a loss at East Lansing. Then their hopes of turning around their season ended Thursday against Northwestern, a team they had beaten twice by a combined 52 points.
"I think everybody just went away and cleared their heads," Iowa senior guard Devyn Marble said. "Coaches kind of gave us room and let us just sit back and got back at it (Sunday)."
"I really had a chance to clear my head," Iowa junior forward Aaron White said. "I didn’t really watch the games. I didn’t really care who won or lost. I didn’t want to watch it. That’s how it goes after you lose like that."
The players returned to Iowa City on Friday. They individually took shots, but didn't practice together until Sunday. Then worked on themselves and didn't prepare for another opponent. After learning their selection to the NCAA tournament -- Iowa plays Tennessee (21-12) on Wednesday (8 p.m. truTV) in an NCAA First Four game of 11 seeds -- they were relaxed.
"We got up and down. We got to play, we got to battle," Iowa senior forward Melsahn Basabe said. "Usually when we practice it’s a scout focus. These were one of those days where we just doing us, and I think that helped us. We’re just ready to go to work."
"Practice was very positive and very competitive and guys were able to get up and down and get after it," Marble said. "I was happy about that. I think this gave us a day or two just to prepare, basically be refreshed from basketball in general and let our minds at ease for a second or so and now that we’re in the tournament. Now we can focus all of our energy on Tennessee."
The Volunteers finished the season in opposite fashion from Iowa. Tennessee was 7-7 after an overtime loss at Texas A&M. Then Tennessee ripped through the final four games of its SEC schedule, including blowout wins over Vanderbilt (38 points), Auburn (28) and Missouri (27) to finish the regular season. Tennessee beat South Carolina by 15 to open the SEC Tournament, but lost to top-ranked Florida 56-49 in a conference semifinal. The Volunteers led by seven at halftime but scored just 14 points in the second half.
Tennessee, one of three SEC teams to make the tournament, boasts a pair of first-team all-SEC players in senior combo guard Jordan McRae and junior forward Jarnell Stokes. McRae, a 6-foot-6 two-time all-SEC selection, led the Volunteers with 18.6 points a game. He hit 75 3-pointers at a 37.1 percent clip and also led with 83 assists.
Stokes, who stands 6-8, averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds a game. He also blocked a team-high 34 shots. He was one of only three players to average a double-double in league play. He led the SEC in field-goal percentage (.567), rebounds (11.1 rpg) and offensive rebounding (4.4).
The Hawkeyes appeared likely to play Tennessee during the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in November. The teams were placed in the same quadrant with Iowa opening with Xavier and Tennessee facing UTEP. The Hawkeyes rallied to beat Xavier in overtime, while UTEP stunned the Volunteers.
Tennessee owns a major win against No. 1 seed Virginia, winning 87-52 on Dec. 30. But the only other NCAA team the Volunteers beat was Xavier back in the Bahamas.
"I watch plenty of basketball so I’ve watched them," White said. "They’ve got McCrae, who’s a good guard, they’ve got Stokes, who’s a good big."
The winner moves to a second-round game against sixth-seeded UMass (24-8) on Friday in Raleigh, N.C. But Wednesday first for Iowa. It's one final opportunity to wipe away a month of disappointment.
"It’s a fresh start for us," Iowa senior forward Zach McCabe said. "It was a little nerve-wracking watching, seeing if our name was going to pop up and then when it finally does and it’s to get ready for work. You just have to turn the page. You can’t think about what happened at the end of the season and stuff like that. We have to be focused on what we need to do now and playing hard and just playing focused and bring energy with these guys."