Iowa balancing motivators for NIT run

Hawkeyes want to 'play angry' but with focus on what they can do to be better than they were last time out

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IOWA CITY — Sometimes it’s OK to play angry. The Iowa men’s basketball team has a little anger at the moment.

Sure, the Hawkeyes are more than a little frustrated they won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament. But that’s secondary to the frustration they have with themselves for how the Indiana game played out in the Big Ten Tournament.

As one of the first four out, it appears as if Iowa stood a very good chance of making the field if it won at least one game in Washington, D.C. Every team has its motivators, and while Coach Fran McCaffery and his bunch have plenty of self-motivation in simply wanting to win, having some extra factors at play doesn’t hurt.

“Absolutely. We want to play angry. We want to play with a lot of emotion, but we’re not going to let that get the best of us,” forward Ahmad Wagner said. “We want to play hard and with fire.

“It’s always good to have motivation. You line up a team in front of us, and we always want to win.”

McCaffery downplayed the anger side of things, saying the motivation to win is the “same way they would get their motivation for any other game,” but his players had a slightly different view.

There are two sides to the motivation argument: one is to stoke the “nobody believes in us,” emotion and the other is to expect, at this point of the season, for that not to be necessary.

Forward Cordell Pemsl said for Iowa, both can be at work at the same time. As Wagner said, as long as they don’t let the emotion or frustration consume them, it can be productive. Wanting to win is simple enough, though, and McCaffery and his players all said the competitiveness of the team shouldn’t be a question.

“I think a little bit of both. I think our motivation now is to prove to ourselves and everyone else where we should’ve been,” Pemsl said. “But at the same time, you don’t really need motivation because it’s the postseason. Our motivation should be to win. If we don’t win, we’re done. I think it goes a little bit both ways.

“Obviously it hurts to not make it when you’re that close. We’re not going to underestimate anybody.”

That starts with South Dakota, which comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Wednesday night. The game time was moved from 6 p.m. originally to an 8 p.m. start after the Syracuse vs. UNC-Greensboro game was changed to Wednesday at 6 p.m. thanks to bad weather on the east coast.

Sometimes teams who make the NIT let the frustration or disappointment from not making the NCAA Tournament work against them instead of for them. Every player asked Tuesday afternoon flatly denied the Hawkeyes were that sort of team.

That became clear in how the Iowa players discussed the Coyotes. They talked about guys like Matt Mooney and Trey Dickerson (the former Hawkeye), who command the attention in the backcourt in transition. They talked about Tyler Flack inside and that while they finally have a size advantage — South Dakota has just one player taller than 6-foot-9 — the way the Coyotes play will take a conscious effort to be connected defensively.

The Hawkeyes also know the NIT has quality teams. McCaffery pointed out that “there are conference regular season champions, everyone’s got 20 wins or they’re major conference programs that were right there with really good players.”

“My motivation is just playing with this team,” guard Peter Jok said. “There’s a chance for us to win the whole thing. There’s some really good teams in the NIT. There are some teams in the NIT that are better than teams in the NCAA Tournament, so we’re not going to overlook it.”

It’s no secret every college basketball team wants to play in the NCAA Tournament, and as McCaffery said Sunday night after the brackets for both the Big Dance and NIT were revealed, dwelling on a perceived snub isn’t usually productive.

The tweak with playing angry now is making sure it’s focused on the right thing.

Not at the committee. Not at the “experts,” predicting things. Not at any kind of mathematical system.

“We’re not angry at anyone else but ourselves. We’re the ones that had control of the outcome of the Indiana game and we didn’t take care of business,” Pemsl said. “Our main goal is to come out, play our best game and make it as far as we can in this tournament.

“We want to do it for ourselves as well as to prove to others.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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