The Hawkeyes finished fourth, more than 40 points behind Penn State.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s wrestling season ended Saturday in St. Louis. The men’s basketball season was sent into the offseason a day later with the a 94-92 overtime loss to TCU in the NIT.
But before we turn the page to football (spring practice starts Wednesday), here are some final thoughts on the winter-sports season:
Get Carver loud again
The atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, by all accounts, was better in the NIT than it was during the regular season.
That should be another reminder to Iowa’s athletic bosses that the arena can be rocking more often than just a few times a year. And no offense to the NIT, but regular-season games are far more important.
This is the time to make changes, with the majority of a young, exciting team coming back in 2017-18.
The next few months, they need to strongly examine how to improve the gameday atmosphere. The new scoreboard was a great first step.
What else? Put everything on the table.
What worked in the NIT? Pricing should be examined; $33 for a Big Ten single-game ticket likely squeezes attendance. NIT tickets were $20, with $5 seats for kids.
Should students get free admission on a first-come, first-served basis?
Should there be sections allocated for fans who check a box that they want to stand up during most or all of the game?
What works at sizzling atmospheres like Maryland, Michigan State and Wisconsin? Even Nebraska's regular-season crowds are more passionate than Iowa's.
Can parking be improved so fans aren't as quick to scurry to the exits with 4-5 minutes left in the game?
The UI is fighting two uncontrollable battles, though: 1) Television creates a lot of 8 p.m. weeknight games, something that limits the willingness to travel from folks in the Des Moines or Quad Cities areas. 2) Families have in-season conflicts, like their own weeknight activities or games, that make getting to Carver more of a pain than a priority.
Free throws and defense
If Fran McCaffery’s players can upgrade those two areas this offseason, this team can challenge for a Big Ten title.
Let’s focus on free throws.
The entire Iowa frontcourt should engage in an offseason challenge to sharpen each other’s free-throw shooting skills. Heck, schedule a public competition at Carver-Hawkeye for sometime this summer and invite fans to watch for free.
Whatever it takes.
Of the six returning big men next season, Dom Uhl’s 67.3-percent free-throw accuracy was the high. The others' numbers: Nicholas Baer 61.4, Ryan Kriener, 60.0, Tyler Cook 59.8, Cordell Pemsl 57.5 and Ahmad Wagner 46.3.
Collectively, they shot 57.7 percent from the line and missed 184 free throws. The shortfalls were painfully obvious in the team's two NIT games, when Iowa went 7-for-15 and 8-for-19, as a team.
Opponents are going to foul Cook and Pemsl a lot in the coming years. If you’ve watched any of the NCAA Tournament — where this team wants to (and should) be next year — teams that miss their free throws are usually burned.
Cook and Pemsl seem to have good form.
Knowing their work ethics, I think they’ll figure it out sooner rather than later.
As for the defense, it's obviously a major eyesore. The freshman additions of 6-foot-11 Luka Garza, who on Monday was named Washington, D.C.'s Gatorade Player of the Year, and 6-11 Jack Nunge will help in protecting the rim — Iowa's tallest player this season was 6-9.
So long, Peter Jok
The outgoing senior wound up just short of 20 points a game — 19.9, officially — and No. 7 on Iowa’s all-time single-season scoring chart, with 634 points, despite missing two games and playing through back and shoulder injuries late in the season.
He’ll go onto a professional career as the No. 15 scorer in Iowa history (1,508 points), No. 4 in 3-pointers (216) and the school’s single-season free-throw percentage record holder — he wound up at 91.1 percent for the season, breaking the mark previously held by Matt Gatens (90.4 percent, 2009).
The Big Ten season record — 92.1 percent, by Indiana’s Steve Alford back in 1985 — still stands. (Sorry, folks.)
Jok will be missed — and not just for his on-court production. He became a leader by example for the Hawkeyes’ younger players. We’ll probably not fully appreciate the amount of defensive attention he attracted until it's geared toward someone else (maybe Jordan Bohannon) next season.
Revisiting Cory Clark
After returning from St. Louis, I replayed the final match of Cory Clark’s college career several times.
Given what the Iowa senior revealed Saturday night — that he tore left-wrist ligaments before the season and was toughing out pain after multiple in-season dislocated left-shoulder incidents — his 133-pound NCAA championship will go down as one of the most memorable title bouts in Hawkeye history.
Like he did in two previous championship bouts, he fell behind early to South Dakota State’s Seth Gross.
But unlike losses to Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer (11-8, 2015) and Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett (7-6, 2016), he rallied.
It was the most Clark win you could author — a gritty third-period takedown, and a punishing 83-second ride-out of a former teammate to emerge, with one good arm, with a 4-3 victory.
It was also a reminder that Iowa’s program relishes individual titles. I covered the previous two NCAA Championships, in which the Hawkeyes went 0-4 in title bouts (Clark 0-2, Thomas Gilman 0-1, Brandon Sorensen 0-1), and Tom Brands was noticeably distraught each time.
This year, he was more upbeat in his final interview session.
“It’s big,” he said, “for our program.”
The 133-pounder reflects on his first NCAA championship and remembers falling short in the finals 2 times before.
Speaking of the program
I got wide-ranging feedback about my column in Sunday’s Register about the future of Iowa wrestling.
The majority agreed with me — that Brands has Iowa well-positioned for a future run at Penn State, having moved past some wrestling-room culture issues and changing his recruiting approach.
Others took issue with it, and I understand their misgivings. They want more than one individual champion and a fourth-place team finish. And there's nothing wrong with wanting more.
But I want to emphasize that it's not realistic just to wish that Penn State's dynasty isn't happening. Cael Sanderson has done an incredible job there; and there’s no quick fix to catch the Nittany Lions, who have all five individual national champions returning next year. Sanderson has successfully left Iowa and other programs in long-term catch-up mode.
The only way to do it is the way Brands is going about it — he’s got mega-recruit Spencer Lee coming in at 125 pounds to highlight the Hawkeyes’ infiltration of Pennsylvania’s Young Guns Club that has a hand in producing the high-character guys with high-powered styles you’re seeing at Penn State.
The key, once they’re here, is to build on that. The Hawkeyes need to be better in scramble situations, and Brands should (and does) realize that.
Maybe the changes should have happened earlier. But if Iowa is going to make it back to the top in a few years, this is the best shot at getting there.
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.