IOWA CITY — Fans high in one corner of Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday sat underneath banners commemorating Iowa’s 1991, 1992 and 1993 appearances in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Those people could have booed when the Hawkeyes allowed open Purdue 3-pointer after open Purdue 3-pointer. They didn’t. They could have left when Iowa was behind 51-20 at halftime or 66-29 with 16:22 remaining. They didn’t.
They could have grumbled or groused, could have muttered complaints as they climbed the steps to the arena’s concourse as they made their way out of the building. They didn’t, not the ones I saw and heard.
This was a day for dignity. The biggest reason a season-high crowd of 14,822 came was to witness the poignant and pitch-perfect halftime ceremony noting the 25th anniversary of the death of Chris Street. He was a force of a power forward who played for those ‘91, ‘92 and ‘93 Hawkeye teams of Tom Davis that won games in each of those three NCAA tourneys.
To boo or bark the current team after the appreciation they showered on Street’s family, Davis, and so many former Iowa players would have felt wrong and unsavory.
So those fans stayed, and they cheered when Maishe Dailey made a 3-pointer with 7:31 left to pull the Hawkeyes within 29 points of the Boilermakers. A few people yelled “Go, Hawks!” with sincerity. But no “go” was in the Hawks.
There aren’t Hollywood endings for everything, or most things. The crowd would have been uplifted by the Hawkeyes at least putting themselves in position to have a chance to win.
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But playing against the nation’s No. 3 team, this Iowa squad lacked the weaponry to as much as compete against Purdue, 8-0 in the Big Ten with as much Final Four potential as any other in the nation.
Those who want to contrast the Boilermakers’ 5-13, last-place Big Ten season of four years ago to what 1-7 Iowa is going through now are free to do so. Many a fine program has gone skidding for a season. Matt Painter’s program hit a brief rocky patch, but is 46-16 in the Big Ten since.
Is that Iowa’s story to-be? It’s hard to imagine right now. Just getting to the finish line this season seems like enough of a goal. Saturday’s pummeling was merely the worst of the Hawkeyes’ five double-digit league losses. The reset after losing four senior starters at the end of 2015-16 season has gone awry.
Last season’s team had expected growing pains, but delighted fans with the way it grew, winning seven of its last 10 conference games. More was expected of this season’s Hawkeyes, but it’s been all pain, not apparent growth.
“You can’t play the game that way!” Fran McCaffery told his Iowa players on the bench after the ones on the floor allowed Purdue to make its 11th 3-pointer of the game ... with 3:39 left in the first half.
The story was old. Hawkeye opponents get open, Hawkeye opponents sink 3s. But this was ridiculous. Purdue, the nation’s third-beat 3-point team, sank 20 3s, a record in a Big Ten game.
The sharpshooting isn’t all the Boilermakers do well. “We just have so many guys that can pass as well as they shoot,” Painter said.
What’s that like?
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McCaffery and his players answered reporters’ questions after the game, but there were no real insights given. That’s not a criticism. What could they say? Total candor would only make matters worse. Hey, we simply don’t have the talent and decision-making to compete with the Big Ten’s better teams for 40 minutes, or in this case, for 10?
“Learn from it, move on, keep grinding,” McCaffery said.
“Don’t give up on this group. It’s a good group of kids. We’ll get it figured out.”
“We’re not going to quit. We’re not going to bow down,” freshman Luka Garza said. “We’re not going out like that.”
It’s what you have to say. It’s what you should say.
But there won’t be another special occasion Tuesday night when Wisconsin plays here, and there won’t be another crowd of 14,822. Why would there be?