IOWA CITY — In case you hadn’t noticed lately, winter is hard here.
This particular winter has already been particularly trying, especially for Iowa men’s basketball fans. Here, in the first week of January, it’s been made abundantly clear the Hawkeyes aren’t competing for a Big Ten title, won’t be at all involved in NCAA tournament bubble babble, and will mostly be trying to hang together and grow for next season.
Iowa’s 92-81 loss to Ohio State Thursday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena was a near carbon copy of its 75-68 defeat to Michigan here two nights earlier. The Hawkeyes couldn’t sustain runs, couldn’t take enough good shots, and couldn’t stop the opponent from picking them apart. They didn’t have the talent or soundness of either opponent.
There are 14 regular-season games remaining, and the Hawkeyes haven’t even seen No. 1 Michigan State or No. 12 Purdue yet.
We led ourselves, perhaps naively, to believe this season’s Iowa team would build on what last season’s green-as-grass Hawkeyes did in surprising so many people by going 10-8 in the Big Ten.
With a year under the belts of Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Cordell Pemsl and a pair of freshman giants in Luka Garza and Jack Nunge ready to help the cause, it was time for another forward push by Fran McCaffery’s program. Right?
Well, the team still is the greenest thing you can find in Eastern Iowa on Jan. 5. The Big Ten’s leading scorer of last season was a Hawkeye. Peter Jok is a Northern Arizona Sun in the NBA G-League. At least one guy from last year’s team is in a warmer place.
There’s no Jok now. There’s no Devyn Marble, Aaron White or Jarrod Uthoff from recent Iowa squads. It’s sophs and frosh, basically, and they’re getting chewed up while trying to figure this stuff out.
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“Marble, White, Uthoff, Jok, that’s a whole another world,” McCaffery said after this loss. “Not only were they really talented, but they’re as tough-minded a foursome as I’ve ever been around. That sort of permeated the locker room. Everybody came with them.
“I think T.C. has that ability, but right now he’s still a young player.”
McCaffery noted that Cook had a 28-point, eight-rebound game Tuesday, but was questioned by the coach why he didn’t have any offensive boards. Thursday, Cook had six, as well as 21 more points. That’s progress.
But for every step forward, there seems to be at least one that goes the other way. These are not untalented players. But they haven’t broken the Big Ten’s code, and are in an 0-4 hole because of it.
“We all have to show up and be that leaders, not one guy,” Garza said. He had 15 points and has done all you could reasonably want from a rookie in averaging 10.4 points and 6.5 rebounds. But to him, it doesn’t feel he’s doing enough.
“It’s the worst feeling, walking out after a game knowing you just lost, seeing another loss in the loss column,” he said. “Nobody came here to lose. We hate this. I hate this. It makes me sick every game. Somehow, we’re going to make this work.
“It’s not going to keep happening, I know that for sure. None of these dudes are losers. This team plays hard. We can do this.”
Effort isn’t the problem, and McCaffery is the first to say so. He’s also quick to admit there are many bridges to cross to get from where the Hawkeyes are now to where they want to be.
“We’re inconsistent in terms of our performance collectively and also individually,” he said, and it would take much space to list the entire to-do list.
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“We’re trying to be aggressive, we’re trying to be active. It’s all about being active and aware at the same time, which we weren’t. We were at times. At times we were doing great stuff. But in stretches, we didn’t, and we’ve got to be able to get through that and be a lot tougher.”
Last year here, it was jarring to see how Ohio State had fallen from its usual high norm. It lost here, 85-72. This year, the Buckeyes are their old, competitive, athletic selves again.
As for Iowa? Put on an extra layer, Hawkeye fans. It’s cold out there.