Hlas: Hawkeyes air late-season episode of 'Growing Pains'

Iowa slips on growth curve Saturday in loss to Illinois

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IOWA CITY — Show me that smile again (Show me that smile)

Don’t waste another minute on your cryin’

We’re nowhere near the end (nowhere near)

The best is ready to begin

So begins the theme song to a sitcom of the past called “Growing Pains.” That show’s title is the theme to this Iowa men’s basketball season.

Not that anyone noticed, but Iowa’s 70-66 loss to Illinois Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena coupled with Purdue’s win over Michigan State guaranteed the Hawkeyes (6-8) their 38th-straight season without a Big Ten regular-season title.

That’s a long time, but not long enough for people around here to forget the guys who got it done in 1979. Three — Vince Brookins, Ronnie Lester and Steve Waite — were among the players here Saturday to help draw attention to teammate Kenny Arnold’s physical plight.

“ARNOLD 30” T-shirts, with the profits going to help bedridden Arnold, sold like wild. A lot of fans younger than 38 waited in a long line before the game to get autographs from those three men, as well as others who helped them get Iowa to the 1980 Final Four.

The timing to ask if the freshmen and sophomores who make the bulk of this season’s Hawkeyes can bring a championship banner to Carver wasn’t the best after Saturday’s game. But so what?

“They’re young, they play hard and compete,” said Lester, the point guard who was as good any Hawkeye player ever.

“They need a little bit more size, I think. But I think they’ll be better next year. And two years from now, I think they should be really good.”

The 1979 Hawkeyes had three seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman in their rotation. So except for freshman starting forward Kevin Boyle, they knew how to navigate through a Big Ten season.

Fran McCaffery has assembled very good young talent here. He used five freshmen and four sophomores Saturday. He has a pair of 6-foot-11 players he likes coming in next season, so that answers Lester’s request for size.

The biggest thing McCaffery’s guys needed this season was simply experience. Saturday’s was unpleasant experience. It should still help.

The season before Iowa shared the Big Ten title in 1979, it was 5-13 in the conference with Lester a sophomore. Included were two one-point losses and another by three.

“Losing close games like this always leaves a bitter taste in your mouth,” Lester said. “They’ll learn from the experience of losing close games like this and be better next year for it.”

This season’s freshmen Hawkeyes are going through a 32-game (or more) slog for the first time. Until you’ve done it, you don’t really know what it’s like.

“Yeah,” freshman power forward Tyler Cook said when asked if it’s feeling like a grind right now. “I think it is for everybody, especially when you go through the kind of stuff (a three-game losing streak) we’re going through. It’s always difficult to stay positive mentally and stuff like that.

“We’ve just got to keep fighting.”

Cook had a 14-point game, frequently displaying the low-post skills that showed why big things are expected of him here. He so clearly has game.

But he also had foul trouble, whether everyone agreed with certain calls against him Saturday or not, and had to sit out much of the final seven minutes because he had four personals.

Growing pains.

“It’s hard in a lot of ways,” McCaffery said about first-year players getting to Game 27. “It’s physically exhausting. It’s mentally exhausting. It highlights the things that are critical in a game like this.

“You know, it usually comes down to a mistake or two, who makes a mistake, who overcomes a mistake. … Sometimes you’ve got to go through it and experience it, the good, the bad.”

Maybe truth can be found in the schmaltzy song from a silly sitcom.

We’re nowhere near the end with most of the current Hawkeyes, and the best is probably about to begin. Perhaps the autograph line here in 2055 for Cook and his teammates will be long, too.

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