Iowa trying to stay mentally sharp as season winds down

Hawkeyes' young players dealing with mental grind, trying to avoid looking too far into the future

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IOWA CITY — With every loss Iowa men’s basketball team has taken in the last month or so, the chances of postseason play — even in the NIT — have dwindled.

Not that the Hawkeyes are worrying about that specifically — Coach Fran McCaffery and Co. have enough to worry about trying to snap a three-game losing streak — but when social and traditional media go on about bracketology and Iowa’s place (or lack thereof) in it, it’s hard to shut out completely.

Iowa players acknowledged as much Monday during media availability in advance of the Hawkeyes’ matchup against Indiana (15-12, 5-9 Big Ten) at 8 p.m. on Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. With four games left, it would be easy, for instance, to start to look to the future with so many young players and three more talented guys coming in.

It’s hard to shut out, but the Hawkeyes (14-13, 6-8) are trying to make the final four games of the regular season count for something.

“It’s a different standpoint from our perspective because we’re playing and we’re realizing that we have to take it day by day. But again, we realize everyone else’s perspective that we’re a young team and we have a lot of young guys,” freshman guard Jordan Bohannon said. “We have more young guys coming in next year, so we’re going to be a young team again.

“But we want to win right away. We don’t want to wait for the next couple years and wish away our freshman year. Yeah, we’re looking forward to the future, but we’ve got to realize the next game is the most important.”

Bohannon also admitted there might’ve been more to the idea of the Hawkeyes looking to that future when this season started. He said Monday the players knew the narrative surrounding the team and how good the young corps of players sets Iowa up to be, and might’ve allowed that to be a little too much of their focus.

He said, “I think that kind of hurt us, trying to look forward to the next couple years,” and that once Big Ten play started, the reality of what he said about not wanting to wish away their first season truly set in.

It’s still hard, though. In terms of postseason, the regular season doesn’t offer myriad opportunities for the Hawkeyes to guarantee an NIT berth. The danger, then, lies in coasting through the final four regular season games before heading to Washington, D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament.

McCaffery stated simply in his news conference Monday, “I don’t worry about that; I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” as the season winds down.

“Obviously that’s what we hear everyone talking about that, ‘These guys can be really good; they’re going to be really good in the future.’ But we want the future to be our next game, not wait for something that’s supposed to happen,” freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said. “Obviously we think about it and it’s in the back of our minds, but we want to focus on us now and do everything we can do physically and mentally to be the best we can be right now.”

Being at their best mentally might be more important than physically — and McCaffery said as much Monday. Given Iowa’s 11-man rotation, McCaffery’s notion that the players shouldn’t be too physically taxed makes sense, and was backed up by his players.

But this is the first time seven of Iowa’s 14 players have gone through the Big Ten. It would be foolish to think any team with that much youth wouldn’t be mentally worn out, at least a little.

McCaffery correctly pointed out every team goes through that grind, but also that it’s incumbent on the Iowa staff to “do what we have to do to get them so that they can handle it (and) be respectful of what we can hold them accountable for.”

Demanding too much, demanding things players aren’t capable of is unfair, McCaffery said — as he’s said on several occasions. What he’s asked them is to give them all they can. The danger, he said, is continually asking more and more to the point of “being unrealistic.” He added, “and you can’t be unrealistic, because you want them to ultimately feel good about what they are doing.”

None of the players asked about that grind said they’d trade it for anything, but all of them admitted its effect. Sometimes it’s getting worn down in that fashion that exacerbates and enables the thoughts of the future.

“It can take a toll on you, mentally and physically,” Pemsl said. “Obviously this is my first go-round here, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else other than the grind I’m going through now, but sometimes you’ve got to sit back and realize you need to slow it down and take it a little easier and not put so much pressure on yourself.

“We have to understand mistakes are going to happen. We have to learn from those and try to make the next play our best play.”

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

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