AMES, Ia. — Fran McCaffery can only control what he can control.
And the way things are going, the Iowa basketball coach finds himself in a difficult — yet the most important — seat after Thursday's 84-78 loss at Iowa State.
McCaffery's young players are making too many unforced mistakes. They’re missing open shots; 25 3-pointers misfired Thursday. They continue to be hot-and-cold on defense.
McCaffery’s dealing with player injuries, too — the latest being the lower-right leg gash that took out one of his scrappiest players, Cordell Pemsl, from a rivalry game and possibly longer.
The frustration was understandable for the eighth-year head Hawk before 14,384 fans at Hilton Coliseum.
But McCaffery needs to do his part, too.
Thursday, his in-game management deserves to be second-guessed.
After a Nicholas Baer throw-away and Iowa only down 58-57 with 10 minutes, 29 seconds to go, I told my Register colleague, Mark Emmert, that this would be a good time for McCaffery to use his first of three second-half timeouts. That marked seven second-half turnovers for the Hawkeyes after a pretty clean first half.
At that point, Iowa's players were clearly “sideways,” as McCaffery refers to it, with two of its key guys — Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook — planted on the bench. Also out was freshman Jack Nunge, who on this night might’ve been playing better than anyone wearing black and gold.
At that point, Iowa needed a boost, some kind of reset button.
Instead, McCaffery let his team play through the rut, and Iowa State’s Terrence Lewis drained a 3-pointer and — after a Luka Garza turnover — Cameron Lard thundered home a dunk for a 63-57 Cyclone lead.
That all happened in a span of 35 seconds, a 5-0 spurt that could’ve at least been altered and maybe avoided.
Still … no McCaffery timeout, until the TV commercial break required one.
Finally, after Iowa State banged home back-to-back 3s on the heels of two more bad Iowa turnovers, McCaffery called timeout — with the score now, 72-63, with 6:15 to go.
In four minutes, a one-point deficit had exploded to nine.
Why wait so long?
McCaffery's response: “Because you know you’re going to need (timeouts) at the end. I wish I had two more.”
But by then, it was too late.
Iowa eventually clawed back to within three, but not until 29 seconds remained.
“When we had consecutive turnovers in the second half, they feed off of that, especially in this environment," Baer said. "You’re down 10, it’s tough to battle back. We did. But unfortunately we couldn’t come all the way back.”
Iowa fans know that McCaffery's stubbornness to call timeouts is nothing new. That's the way he has coached for seven-plus years here. He typically lets his guys play through bumps, even in the most hostile of environments.
McCaffery let them play through a long stretch at Indiana, too, without a coach-instituted timeout. A one-point deficit (43-42) in the second half of a winnable game became 17 (67-50) over a seven-minute stretch before McCaffery finally pulled the trigger.
Maybe one timeout doesn't make a difference. Maybe it makes some. It's a lot easier to be an armchair quarterback than a coach making in-the-moment decisions amid 14,000 screaming fans.
Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon thought the Hawkeyes played well enough for 35 or 37 minutes to beat Iowa State, but not for 40.
And, as I mentioned at the top, there are more frustrations with this team beyond how the coach spends timeouts.
Down 79-74 with 1½ minutes left, shooting guard Brady Ellingson got two wide-open 3-point attempts in a single key possession. He missed them both — long, then short.
Then after securing a steal, Ellingson slipped and traveled.
It was that kind of night.
And it’s been that kind of season for the Hawkeyes, who have now lost six of their last seven games and are 4-6 overall with 30 percent of the season in the books.
There was actually progress visible Thursday night for the Hawkeyes.
But for the third straight game, they committed 18 turnovers.
“It’s guys that are trying to make plays, they want to make plays," McCaffery said. "But they’re ill-advised.”
Iowa should win when it out-rebounds its opponent, 53-31, as it did Thursday.
“We had two really good practices leading up to this game. We knew we were ready to play," Bohannon said. "… But it was just that five-minute stretch in the second half that was really hard to come back from.”
Indeed it was.
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.