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IOWA CITY — Sunday’s second-round NIT game ended up being a microcosm of the Iowa men’s basketball season.
At times, the Hawkeyes looked like a team lost on the defensive end — a step behind, with open shots from their opponent falling at a high rate. At others, Iowa put it together well — swarming to trap in the zone press or fighting someone off for a rebound.
Through both ends of the spectrum — both earlier in the season and on Sunday against TCU — Iowa took away lessons and applied them. The Hawkeyes made their way back from down 11 in the second half and pushed the game to overtime, but those old bad habits that came back in the first half were too much. Iowa’s season ended with a 94-92 loss to TCU in overtime as a Cordell Pemsl jumper bounced off the front of the rim.
There was net growth this season, to be certain. It just didn’t manifest itself soon enough Sunday.
“If you remember … our defense in Florida was as bad as I’ve ever been around. I felt terrible that my staff and I hadn’t done a better job getting those guys to play better defense,” Coach Fran McCaffery said. “We couldn’t stop anybody; couldn’t stop them in transition, couldn’t stop them in zone, couldn’t stop them in man. I thought the Iowa State game was a turning point for us, and our defense became better … I think they did a much better job as the season progressed in that area.
“Sometimes you’ve got to learn from that. And from that point forward, we were a lot better. Today we didn’t get much from our changing defenses. We didn’t get many turnovers. They handled the ball well.”
Headed into the game against the Horned Frogs, McCaffery and Co. knew they needed to return to the form the Hawkeyes had shown in the final four games of the regular season. They had success with switching defenses on the fly, as McCaffery mentioned, but TCU’s ball movement and quick guards rendered that previous success moot.
TCU shot 50.7 percent from the field, got 52 points in the paint, 28 points off turnovers and 16 second-chance points while only turning the ball over nine times.
So much of what McCaffery had talked about all year in regards to his defense was anticipation and communication. It showed up late, but not in time.
“I think our defense wasn’t as connected as it needed to be,” McCaffery said. “They were running a lot of screen roll. We were helping, but we weren’t helping the helper. Again, that comes down to being connected, so you’ve got to help the helper, help the helper, help the helper, and that’s what the rotations come from. When you have a team that shoots it that well from 3 and has a 6-11 center that can catch and finish and score off either shoulder, they’ve got you all spread out.
“It’s going to require us to recognize where do I have to be, does Jordan need help on penetration, where is my shooter? We try to get into gaps and do some one-way closeouts, but we got caught staring at the ball a few times.”
Iowa players said before the season how they adapted defensively would tell their story of success or failure — that they’d be able to score with anyone.
That, too, held true Sunday and represented the season as a whole.
The Hawkeyes shot 54 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from 3-point range — making 16 of 30. They had 26 assists on 34 made shots, and out-rebounded the Horned Frogs, 39-32. McCaffery pointed out that typically those are numbers that win games.
Seventeen turnovers and 42.1 percent shooting from the free throw line (8 of 19) bit hard. Couple that with how the defense played for too much of the game, and even the late push with 3s from Jordan Bohannon (25 points and 13 assists for his third straight double-double) wasn’t enough.
Bohannon talked about the ups and downs of the season and of the game Sunday night. He talked about being able to score but not being able to “put all 40 minutes together,” which, again, was applied many other times this year.
If anything, that’s more frustrating than the simple fact of the season being finished and the goal of winning the NIT not being met.
What Iowa went through this season was a monthslong learning process. What Iowa went through Sunday night was just one more lesson.
“It hurts because of the way we played against Indiana and even South Dakota in a way. That intensity we had in the four-game stretch where we were winning at the end of the season just wasn’t there these last three games,” Pemsl said. “In the way, there were a lot of inconsistencies throughout the year. One game, we’re playing like we should be in the NCAA Tournament, the next we’re playing like we might not even make the NIT. It’s frustrating and it’s hard to understand how that can happen.
“You don’t want to make the excuse we’re young, but it’s a lot for — at one point — four freshmen in the starting lineup. Things aren’t going to come our way every time and we’re going to go through some negatives. We’ve got to learn to adapt to that. It’s going to help us in the long run.”
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