IOWA CITY — This hair shirt of a basketball season is almost over. And it’s not going to be fun taking this thing off.
That process sort of began Friday for Iowa basketball. The Hawkeyes (12-18, 3-14 Big Ten) play host to Northwestern (15-15, 6-11) on Sunday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It’s the last regular-season game for the Hawkeyes. They’re tied for last place in the Big Ten, joining Rutgers and Illinois on the bottom.
Iowa has finished last in league play only once since 1939 (5-13 under Tom Davis in 1993-94). If the Hawkeyes lose to Northwestern, Iowa will have won only three games in league play for the first time since the 1963-64 season.
This is the awkward part. The majority of fans have moved on. When something is disappointing, you tend to not pay much or any attention to it. So, a good chunk of fans aren’t living and dying on a last-place basketball team. Players and coaches, well, you’re still in it and someone at some point is going to have to start digging.
Head coach Fran McCaffery plans to have a shovel in his hands in Iowa City next fall. This is not how McCaffery envisioned his eighth season at Iowa, and the requisite “hot seat” questions are definitely woven into this 3-14 Big Ten hair shirt.
On Friday, McCaffery flatly rejected the notion of a hot seat, instead pointing to his record at Iowa. McCaffery has put the Hawkeyes in the NCAA tournament three times (2016 was the last appearance). He’s also taken the Hawkeyes to three NITs.
“I know. I know,” McCaffery said after acknowledging Iowa’s last-place position. “Like I said, body of work. There is a lot of things to be evaluated. Maybe you should look at that.”
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McCaffery’s Iowa resume is fairly modest, but Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter did Carver no favors, leaving a figurative crater for McCaffery to dig out of. But this is eight years in now ... But Iowa basketball doesn’t have a great winning tradition. This could go on all day and it’s not going to go anywhere.
At the end of every disappointing season, you hear Iowa athletics director Gary Barta say evaluation comes after the season. Iowa’s hoops season might be over before March for the first time since 1938.
Everyone Iowa basketball is ready to evaluate everything Iowa basketball.
“I think for them what they have to do is evaluate everything, as we will do,” McCaffery said about his players and staff. “Obviously, we’re going to evaluate how we recruit, strength and conditioning, how we travel, how we do skill development. When you have a bad season, that’s what you do, you evaluate everything and you break it down.
“They’ve (the players) got to do the same thing, so it’s collective, but it’s got to be individual. OK, what could I have done better? We’re all going to do the same thing. You look at those two guys (Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook) they put up pretty good numbers. They were obviously instrumental in our victories and they had some spectacular performances.
“That said, what could they have done better? What could the other guys have done better? What do we have to do to grow together? How do we improve some of our negative areas, which obviously has been on the defensive end? I think that’s the professional way to go about it.”
None of the historical mile markers right now are ones worth celebrating, but if this is what the bottom looks like, take a look around and make a note of how much it sucks.
Bohannon is from here, growing up in Marion. He knows the temperature on Iowa basketball is freezing. It stings, and they certainly plan to do something about it. But also, no one is making empty promises born out of bravado. Hopes and dreams and the relative health of hopes and dreams are the discussion.
“Putting on the jersey is a different level for me than anyone else,” Bohannon said Friday. “I know the importance of what it means being Iowa. It means a lot to me to have my name on the back of the jersey. For us to be in this position at this point of the season is really not depressing, but frustrating for me.
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“I know what we’re capable of doing. All I’ve ever wanted to do growing up is put on the Iowa jersey and play in front of Iowa fans. That was my dream since I was a little kid. Obviously, losing is something I hate doing and it’s really frustrating for me. At the end of the day, I have to step up and be a leader and let everyone know it’s going to be OK and there will be better times ahead.”
Expect the Hawkeyes to stay locked in this mode. They do have two games left and basketball season dreams are never over until the final buzzer. McCaffery has been conscious of message. He’s just not going to try something because he thinks it might help them grow for next year.
McCaffery used sophomore forward Ryan Kriener, who scored 15 points last week at Minnesota, as an example.
“I would look at a zone or man or change defenses if it would help us win that game,” McCaffery said. “It wouldn’t have to do with, ‘Hey, let’s see what this looks like for next year,’ no. If there’s a guy you’ve been trying to get playing time for, you might try to get him a little more playing time.
“But I’ve got a group of guys like that. Look at Kriener the other night, he was spectacular. He was out for a long time. He’s missed parts of games for 10 games because of two concussions. I mean, it’s been a rough year for him. So now you’re probably seeing what he’s capable of doing when he finally feels good.”
McCaffery’s tone hasn’t changed, a conclusion you probably drew from the “hot seat” discussion. Given this lost season, you could see how it’d be easy for McCaffery to lose it. For all of them to lose it.
“When it’s all said and done, the consistency that has to be maintained is there’s got to be teaching going on,” McCaffery said. “That’s how we are most of the time. So, you might see me flip out during the timeout or something like that. That’s an isolated incident that happens a couple times. I’m not doing that every day. If you do, you’ll lose your team all the time. They’ll just turn you off, and say, ‘OK, this guy’s crazy, and we’re not buying anymore.’”
As miserable as the record is, everyone Iowa is going to fight like crazy to keep this going, hair shirts or no hair shirts.
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