IOWA CITY — It’s funny how quickly a conversation surrounding a college basketball team can change.
After three straight losses — the last of which at home to Illinois — and two road games against then-No. 24 Maryland and No. 21 Wisconsin on the horizon, the Iowa men’s basketball team’s conversation was one of resignation in youth finally breaking the postseason camel’s back. Fast forward by a week, an overtime win, a dominant win on the road, eight 3-pointers and 45 total points from two freshmen, and things aren’t so resigned in the discussion of the Hawkeyes.
It happens every year, with many different teams, so Coach Fran McCaffery’s description of that shift being “just typical,” is both fair and unsurprising. The timing of Iowa’s latest surge of playing well collectively comes at a good time — albeit at the last minute — as the Hawkeyes head to Kohl Center to play the No. 21 Badgers.
That catch is, with a team full of players on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, not letting that conversation and its variations actually affect anything tangible.
“If you’re playing well, the conversation goes one way and if you’re not playing well, the conversation goes another way. The challenge is always: how do you handle both?” McCaffery said in a teleconference Tuesday. “You can’t get too high; you can’t get too low. You can’t get negative with each other when we’re losing, whether it be one player to another or player-coach, coach-player. If things are going well and you win and kind of put it all together, it doesn’t mean we’ve arrived. It means the challenge gets bigger for the next game because you’ve got to be able to duplicate it. That’s what the great teams do. And that’s hard. But if you have character and determination, it’s possible.”
It’s impossible to quantify those last two characteristics McCaffery mentioned, but his reasons for citing them when referencing his team stand with the fact that the Hawkeyes have responded to three losing streaks of three games or more this season with at least back-to-back wins — and twice those win streaks have included victories against ranked opponents (Iowa State and Maryland).
In the most recent, the current two-game winning streak, Iowa won games in ways in which it had failed previously. Against Indiana, there was the comeback from starting out down, 9-0, and closing out in overtime after a pair of heartbreakers in extra time against Nebraska and Minnesota. Against Maryland, there was dominant inside-outside play and consistent offense from start to finish on the road — something that had only happened previously at Rutgers.
The Maryland performance informs the trip to Wisconsin in the largest part because it’ll be a second straight hostile environment. Given how up and down Iowa’s execution in all those areas has been this season, there’s no guarantee it continues, but winning at Maryland was the surest sign something has stuck.
“You have to have situations where you have to think for yourself and compete,” McCaffery said. “And then you’ve got to work through situations where you have to do that with little help from (coaches on) the bench — because you’re on the road and it’s loud, and you have to be connected on the floor. I think our experienced guys have helped our young guys through that process, but I’m just proud of how they’ve continued to improve. Most importantly, when we have had failure, they’ve learned from it.”
Two regular season chances remain to improve and learn for these Hawkeyes, starting Thursday at 8 p.m. at Kohl Center against Wisconsin. The Badgers have lost four of their last five games after starting 21-3, but three of those four losses came on the road.
Iowa gets the chance to get the second best frontcourt test it’s faced all season (Purdue being the other) with Naismith Award semifinalist Ethan Happ and preseason All-Big Ten player Nigel Hayes doing their thing — that thing being 15.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for Happ and 13.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for Hayes. Toss in Vitto Brown and Charles Thomas, and the Hawkeyes are going to have a tough test defending the rim.
McCaffery and Co. are confident in passing that test because of the aforementioned work to ignore their own press — good and bad — and to find solutions to their issues.
That’s the common thread in the winning, McCaffery said — the constant search for solutions.
“You look and say, ‘We’re in the midst of a losing streak, let’s analyze what it is. What is it about our team? What is it about me individually?’– and then do everything we can not to duplicate that. If everybody does that, we have a better chance to win,” McCaffery said. “I think the mindset of competition; that’s what competition is. It’s having the mental toughness, but also the intellect to make adjustments to what teams are doing and people are doing to you. I think that’s what I’m most proud of. They keep battling, they keep learning, they keep growing and they keep believing in each other.”
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