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Leistikow: Despite struggles, important for young Hawkeyes to fight to finish

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the latest Iowa basketball road loss got more and more out of hand … as the Bryce Jordan Center got more and more revved up … Fran McCaffery remained pretty calm.

Arms crossed on the sideline, McCaffery watched helplessly as Penn State rattled off three dunks in a stirring second-half span of 39 seconds — one off an offensive rebound, two uncontested throw-downs off steals.

Iowa fans have become similarly numb to how this season has transpired. Saturday, an 82-58 loss to a middle-of-the-road Big Ten Conference team had an all-too-familiar feeling.

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Cordell Pemsl (35) defends against Penn State Nittany Lions forward Julian Moore (44) during the second half at Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State defeated Iowa 82-58.

A slow start, not much defense and a second half that was mostly about getting it over with.

For the game, Penn State had 10 dunks and shot 55 percent.

McCaffery, to his credit, has exchanged demonstrative sideline antics for teaching moments as he tries to hold this team together.

“For the most part, I’ll stay positive with the guys,” McCaffery said in his postgame press conference, in which his answers were calm and measured. “Because when you do fall below .500 this time of the season, it’s easy to go negative and start blaming. I’ve said this before, you’ve heard me say this: You do that, and you’re not going to get anything.”

Only four times in his 21 prior years as a college head coach has McCaffery finished with a below-.500 team — twice at UNC-Greensboro and in his first years at Lehigh and Iowa.

His 22nd season could be the fifth. After Saturday’s loss, the Hawkeyes stand at 12-13 overall, 3-9 in Big Ten play ... with seemingly not much left to play for.

And their next three games are toughies: Tuesday at home vs. No. 4 Michigan State, then road trips to No. 18 Ohio State and No. 25 Michigan.

McCaffery can do all he can to try to keep this team pushing forward, but ultimately it comes down to a bunch of mostly 20-year-olds.

This Hawkeye roster is filled with high-character guys who love the game.

They know they shouldn’t be struggling this much.

They believe brighter days are ahead.

“Obviously, this season is nowhere (close to) where we thought it was going to be,” said forward Cordell Pemsl, who scored nine points but was among at least five Hawkeyes who missed point-blank layups Saturday. “We can’t let that dictate … the way that we are mentally and emotionally."

Body language can be tricky to read. But I thought for stretches of the second half, even when the game was out of hand, Iowa showed decent energy. It held Penn State to four points in one 7-minute span.

In other stretches, the Hawkeyes looked either indifferent or fatigued.

Point guard Jordan Bohannon was certainly the latter.

Bohannon became so sick Saturday that he barely took part in the team’s shootaround. He scored only three points — a 3-pointer in the game’s first minute to put Iowa ahead, 3-0 — in 24 minutes. McCaffery sat his sophomore leader for the final 12:08.

“He just ran out of gas pretty quickly,” the coach said.

Bohannon had played 78 of 80 possible minutes in Iowa’s previous two games.

“It’s really tough, (him) being our point guard and leader in the backcourt,” freshman center Luka Garza said. “We put some weird lineups out there. It’s a lot different, because we’re used to him playing 40 minutes or pretty close to it.”

So: What do these players have left in their tank?

It’s been a long year for these Hawkeyes. They went on the European trip over the summer, something the NCAA allows once every four years. The last time Iowa had a team go to Europe, that squad ran out of steam. The 2013-14 Hawkeyes infamously lost seven of their final eight games after rising into the national top 10.

This group had high hopes, with bold talk of expecting to reach the NCAA Tournament

“Regardless of wins and losses, we play this game to have fun,” said sophomore forward Tyler Cook, who led Iowa with 19 points. “We play this game because we love it.

“When that’s the case, there’s not much (else you need) to play hard.”

Penn State Nittany Lions guard Nazeer Bostick (4) and Iowa Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon (3) fight for the rebound during the first half at Bryce Jordan Center.

Bottom line: The writing has been on the wall for a while this season.

Iowa has just one win against a team in the NCAA's RPI Top 100 (Colorado, which was at 61 before Saturday).

What's left for this team to play for?

Each other.

If they give up on each other now, who's to say they won't bail on next season when the going gets rough?

No, there isn't going to be NCAA (or even NIT) bubble talk for a team with an RPI in the 140s. But the Hawkeyes need to find a way to finish this season on a positive note.

They have six chances left, plus the Big Ten Tournament in New York. It'll be over in a month.

"Six games left; anything can happen," Pemsl said. "Who knows? Our goal is to go into every day, whether it’s a practice or a game, and compete. No matter what happens, these guys know I have their back. I know they have mine. At the end of the day, we’re going to go out there as brothers and try to get it done.”

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.