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Margin is nil for Iowa's Big Ten title hopes

Hawkeyes travel to Ohio State

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IOWA CITY — Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell walked into a postgame media session with their egos slightly bruised but hardly deflated.

The two Iowa seniors faced the usual questions following the Hawkeyes’ 67-59 loss to Wisconsin, the team’s third in four games. They didn’t hide, they gave honest answers and left themselves some wiggle room in the process.

When a reporter asked what has caused the recent slump, Woodbury quipped, “If I knew the answer to that we’d be winning the last two nights. We’ll be better, watch more film and we’ll be better on Sunday.”

It’s a big day for Iowa basketball. The No. 8 Hawkeyes (20-7, 11-4) trail Indiana (23-6, 13-3) by 1 1/2 games in the Big Ten regular-season race. Iowa plays at Ohio State (18-10, 10-6) still with sights on its first league crown since 1979. A win keeps it all in play with the Hoosiers coming to Iowa City on Tuesday. A loss turns the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten chances into wishful thinking.

While discussing the big picture is more interesting for fans and media, keeping a narrow perspective allows it to become a reality. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery has avoided talking with his team about championships. He instead focuses only on the moment.

“We just look at what do we have to do to beat Ohio State?” McCaffery said. “What do we do to be better than we were in the previous game? Sometimes that gets lost when you lose. I thought we were better in the Wisconsin game, substantially better than we were in the Penn State game. You can’t lose sight of that even if you lose the game. We just have to be better than we were against Wisconsin.”

The numbers suggest Iowa should be better against the Buckeyes. Iowa’s 32.7 percent shooting percentage and 59 points against the Badgers were season lows. The Hawkeyes committed 14 turnovers, their most in league play. Defensively, they gave up 10 3-pointers for the second straight game.

The numbers are outliers, and the players’ confidence remains unwavering despite their recent slide.

“We’re never going to be un-confident,” Woodbury said. “We’ve got a great season going. There’s not time to cave in and throw the towel in. We’ve got a lot of season left to play, a lot of big goals left in mind. It’s not time to give up.”

“We’re obviously disappointed, and you never want to lose a game, but we’ll be fine,” Gesell said. “There’s a lot of season left. We’ve still got three regular-season games left, and we’re still in a great position.”

Woodbury and Gesell’s demeanor was reminiscent of how they stood outside their locker room at Hilton Coliseum on Dec. 10. They vowed to learn from their mistakes and take away the positives from a bitter 83-82 loss at Iowa State. While their words sounded like cliches, there was steel in their stares. That’s what they displayed after Wednesday’s loss, too.

“I’m pissed off every time we lose,” Woodbury said. “Obviously I can’t speak for everybody else, but I saw some fire in that locker room. So we’ll be better.”

Three straight Iowa wins clinches at least a share of the Big Ten title. The Hoosiers still have to play Maryland, and the Terrapins face Illinois at home before traveling to Indiana.

Not that Sunday’s match-up is easy. The Buckeyes have won four of their last five and have won at least 10 Big Ten games for the 11th straight season. Top forward Jae’Sean Tate is out for the season after shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes have three other players who average at least 10.5 points a game. That includes guard JaQuan Lyle, who has scored at least 12 points in five of the last six games.

Ohio State has advanced to seven straight NCAA tournaments but with an RPI of 77, that streak is in jeopardy. A win against Iowa would elevate the Buckeyes’ profile and postseason chances. So the motivation works both ways.

“We’re going to see the real Iowa, as we always do,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said. “They have a lot on the line, we have a lot on the line. I’m sure it will be another fantastic battle against them.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3169; scott.dochterman@thegazette.com

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