Leistikow: Tough optics for Hawkeye hoops after Big Ten-opening loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — “We’re still young, but … it just shows me we’re taking small steps to become the team I’ve always envisioned for this program.”

Eight games into the basketball season, Iowa fans wish that was eighth-year coach Fran McCaffery talking after a Big Ten Conference win.

Instead, those words came from seventh-year Penn State coach Patrick Chambers after his Nittany Lions led wire-to-wire and snapped a 12-game Carver-Hawkeye Arena losing streak with a 77-73 victory before a hopeful, but ultimately disappointed, Saturday afternoon crowd of 12,805.

Fran McCaffery buries his head in his hands during the second half of Iowa's 77-73 loss to Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Almost any way you look at it, the optics of Hawkeye hoops are currently in a rough place.

Penn State was the ascending program here, while Iowa was left to search for answers.

Penn State.

This is a program that, in Chambers' first six seasons, has finished (in succession) tied for 11th, 12th, 10th, 13th, 10th and tied for 12th in the Big Ten Conference. In three of those seasons, the Big Ten had 12 teams.

But Saturday, the eye test and the scoreboard showed that Penn State — which, just like Iowa, starts three sophomores — was the better team.

It’s a tangible and worrisome checkpoint for HIowa fans. They see a long-downtrodden program possibly passing theirs up.

The Hawkeyes expect to be an NCAA Tournament team this year. Right now, they are 4-4, the four losses all having their different unsettling characteristics, but all centering on the same theme.

“I think the word is 'consistency,'” McCaffery said when I asked him about his biggest concern.

Of course, he means the lack of it. 

“The disappointing thing, I think, with this group is … most of those guys have done that,” McCaffery continued. “They have been consistent, they have been connected, and they're not right now. So, we've got to do a better job of coaching them up.”

If there's good news, it's that there isn't locker-room finger-pointing. Except at themselves.

Tyler Cook had 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists Saturday. The 6-foot-9 sophomore was Iowa’s best player, a dominant force that probably needs to touch the ball at least once on every possession.

But he was beating himself up about his five turnovers and the two free throws he missed with 2½ minutes to go and Iowa trailing 69-64.

“It was tough,” Cook said. “I felt like I could’ve done a lot more to help us out.”

Cordell Pemsl, who, after Tuesday’s loss at Virginia Tech, cautioned against panic by saying the season was still young, admitted Saturday that “the it’s-early excuse” is no longer valid.

He’s right, of course. Iowa’s lackluster start to nonconference play has been followed with a 0-1 Big Ten start that includes losing a home game it expected to win.

Now, a Monday trip to Indiana and Assembly Hall looms — followed by a tough Thursday game at rival Iowa State.

"We need to start tomorrow and understand that we're going into a tough team Monday at Indiana,” said Pemsl, who had 10 points in 19 minutes off the bench. “We need to pick things up and understand we're playing not to go back to the NIT this year."

Of course, Pemsl means this team needs to get to the NCAAs after falling just short last season. The irony now is that this Hawkeye team needs to get a lot better just to become an NIT team.

Saturday, the Hawkeyes got within three points time and time again after digging out of constant holes.

But every time they needed to make a big play, they couldn’t do it. Offensively, they were too timid one minute and trying to do too much the next.

“I think we are missing a little bit of an edge right now,” junior Nicholas Baer said, another admission that passes the eye test. “But I think nothing cures that like a win.”

The Hawkeyes already find themselves at a crossroads.

First in Bloomington, Indiana, then in Ames.

The fan base is restless, and they should be. Like McCaffery and the players, they expect more from this team. The head coach has a big challenge on his hands.

His approach?

“I think you've got to stay the course,” he said. “We'll tweak some things. But, ultimately, I think you have to build some confidence in your guys.”

A breakthrough moment can't come soon enough.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.