EAST LANSING, Mich. — After another missed opportunity on the rugged Big Ten Conference road, reality is starting to set in: Time is running out on Iowa’s basketball season.
The young Hawkeyes weren’t predicted to or expected to make the NCAA Tournament this season. And they’re not totally dead yet.
But with Saturday night’s 77-66 loss to Michigan State here at the Breslin Center in the books — three days after a double-overtime heartbreaker mired in controversy at top-25 RPI Minnesota — only one hand is needed to count the number of regular-season games remaining.
“We’ve got five games left. We needed that Minnesota game. We thought we had it,” senior Peter Jok said after being held to 13 points on 2 of 11 shooting Saturday. “But it is what it is. We thought we were going to get tonight; we needed tonight, too.”
Jok, hoping to become the first Hawkeye since Roy Marble, Ed Horton and B.J. Armstrong (1986-89) to play in four straight NCAA Tournaments, is absolutely right.
The Hawkeyes, who slumped to 14-12 overall and 6-7 in conference play, truly needed this one.
And, for much of the game, they did almost everything they needed to do to win it.
They forced 21 Michigan State turnovers.
The Iowa coach speaks after a 77-66 loss.
They rode strong bench play to take a 32-31 halftime lead.
But … it’s hard to overcome two straight hours of cold shooting.
Iowa finished with its worst 3-point accuracy in a game this season: 4-for-21, for 19 percent.
The starting backcourt of Jok, Isaiah Moss and Jordan Bohannon — who combined for 59 points at Minnesota — went 0-for-12 from 3-point range here.
And guard Brady Ellingson, a recent revelation and the Big Ten’s leader in 3-point accuracy, went 0-for-2 in 10 minutes.
“It’s difficult on the road when we make only four threes,” said Nicholas Baer, who had three of them, “and none of our guards can knock any down.”
Like I said, a missed opportunity.
If Bohannon, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the week after going 9-for-13 from 3-point range in two wins, makes even two of his six 3-point attempts, Iowa’s right there. The point guard was 0-for-8 overall with no points and one assist.
“I haven’t seen him go 0-for-8, ever,” Fran McCaffery said. “It’s one of those nights for him. I told him to keep shooting; he did.”
Michigan State (15-10, 7-5 Big Ten) was vulnerable, even here. A young team that was fresh off a 29-point loss at rival Michigan was playing clunky basketball.
“There is no way on God’s green Earth that a team can turn over 21 (times and win),” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo conceded. “That’s like six interceptions in football, with 15 penalties.”
Yet, in a 30-second flurry, everything seemed to change.
After Ryan Kriener’s putback got Iowa within 48-44 with 12:44 left, the Spartans’ Nick Ward raced up the court to answer with a layup 8 seconds later.
Baer, trying to beat Michigan State down the floor just as quickly, drove to the hoop and was whistled for a charging call that got McCaffery hot.
That revved-up the crowd of 14,797, which chanted “Throw a chair” at McCaffery after the Iowa coach's infamous 2012 incident here, got even louder as Alvin Ellis III buried a 3-pointer.
Just like that, in a back-and-forth game with 15 lead changes, the Spartans were up nine, 53-44.
Nine would become 12; 12 became 14.
The Hawkeyes couldn’t recover.
“When the crowd gets into it, you get a little rattled,” freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said. “You try not to, but sometimes you just can’t help it. And we were missing shots on top of that.”
And now Iowa’s path seems to be very, very narrow to get to the NCAA Tournament. It’s a selection process that values good road wins, and Iowa has none of those with 84 percent of the regular season complete.
Its only road win of the season was at last-place Rutgers.
Iowa was so close at Nebraska. So close at Minnesota. And now Sparty.
This is a pretty good Hawkeye team that is probably better than its record indicates.
“We’re doing some good things," McCaffery said. "We have to play better."
Now, the Hawkeyes' only two road games left are against the league's leading two teams: Maryland (Feb. 25) and Wisconsin (March 2).
(Hey, at least there’s opportunity.)
It's safe to say Iowa now has two paths of getting to the NCAA Tournament.
One, it could put together a run and win the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C. in early March for the league’s automatic bid.
Two, it could run the table the rest of the regular season: Sweep both those challenging road games and sweep the home schedule vs. Illinois, Indiana and Penn State.
Both are low-percentage options, which was determined with a two-loss week on the road.
“In this stage, you can’t doubt yourself,” Jok said. “It’s time to turn it on. You’ve got to give it your all the next five games, then (in) the Big Ten tournament.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.