Leistikow: Making sense of Iowa basketball season that's gone off the rails

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — These have been 10 days to forget for the Iowa basketball program.

A 20-point loss at Ohio State. An embarrassing postgame tirade that triggered a two-game suspension for the head coach. A perplexing 14-point home loss to Rutgers. And now, an uninspiring 65-45 defeat at Wisconsin on Thursday night at the Kohl Center.

Is this Iowa team, once sizzling to the program’s best start in 30 years, suddenly cooked?

Of course, Iowa players and coaches won't agree with that. There's a sense that it can't get much worse than this, though.

Iowa's Nicholas Baer defends Ethan Happ, who scored 21 points with 14 rebounds in the Badgers' 65-45 victory.

“Sometimes you hit rock bottom before you bounce out of it and get going," said Kirk Speraw, who was filling in for suspended Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "We’ve just got to stay positive with ourselves and each other."

There’s no sugar-coating the way Iowa is playing.

Atrocious shooting. For the fifth straight game, the Hawkeyes couldn’t hit from deep. Couldn’t hit from anywhere, actually. 

“I can’t remember another game like this," Jordan Bohannon said after Iowa shot a season-low 30.5 percent, "when we just had open shots and were just missing."

Careless ball-handling. Iowa gift-wrapped too many turnovers for a stingy Badgers defense that doesn’t need extra help.

Short-term defensive intensity. Even when Iowa did get stops, the easy offensive rebounds it allowed became a Wisconsin lay-up drill on Ethan Happ’s 21-point, 14-rebound Senior Night.

On Tuesday, center Luka Garza said it was time for the Hawkeyes to play “angry” after two straight losses.

Instead, they played tepid.

For some reason, they’ve stopped driving to the basket. A team that once led the nation in free throw attempts tried a season-low six Thursday. Speraw agreed that his guys looked "tentative" at times.

“Unfortunately, we’re going through a little bit of a cold streak right now," senior Nicholas Baer said. "As long as we have our shooters taking good shots, they’ll start to fall."

So, we all get it. We know it's bad right now.

But, for the sake of sanity, let’s all take a breath.

Let's listen to what junior Tyler Cook said after the first scoreless game of his career.

“I’m not saying it’s OK to lose these games, but there’s more to the season than just a few games," Cook said. "... I think we’ll be fine.”

Though these have been 10 unmistakably bad days, they’ve only been 10 days in an otherwise positive four-month regular season.

And there is a way to erase some of this 10-day sting from the memory bank: By winning Sunday’s 1:07 p.m. regular-season finale at Nebraska.

Rather than stumbling to the finish line, the Hawkeyes can take this opportunity to step back into the starting gate.

Fran McCaffery will be back after watching Thursday’s game in the team hotel. It’s clear that the Hawkeyes missed their coach, and a little (controlled) fire might be just what's needed to beat Nebraska.

“Obviously, we’re looking forward to having him back," Baer said. "He’s our coach. He’s our leader.”

The Cornhuskers are absolutely reeling. By Sunday, they will have won just two games in 55 days. Coach Tim Miles is likely on his way out.

This is a game Iowa can win. One it needs to win.

At 21-9, the Hawkeyes still should be on track for an NCAA Tournament bid. But they’ve certainly made that less a slam dunk with each mounting loss.

Another L, and suddenly it feels like a First Four date in Dayton, Ohio, becomes a dreaded possibility. Nobody in black and gold wanted that five years ago when it happened, and nobody wants that now.

A win Sunday, and they can wipe away most doubt with an 11-9 record in the toughest conference in America.

Most of all, a win Sunday — against an opponent that has lost 11 of its last 13 games — is something this collection of players desperately needs.

They've worked too hard to throw away a once-promising season. They're good players. But for some reason (perhaps the outside drama?), they've all fallen into a funk at once. No Hawkeye scored in double digits Thursday.

“Once we start seeing the ball go in the hole a couple times," Cook said, "we’ll start seeing every other area of the game change for us."

If you're looking for hope ... I remember three years ago, after Iowa held a 20-5 record, it lost four straight games. Fans felt the sky was falling. But in the regular-season finale at Michigan, the Hawkeyes pulled it together and beat the NCAA Tournament-bound Wolverines by double digits.

Jarrod Uthoff had 29 points on that night in Ann Arbor. He was a senior. That Iowa team salvaged a No. 7 seed in the Big Dance and a first-round win against Temple.

Like they did then, Iowa’s veterans need to take the lead now to save this season from going down the drain.

"Nebraska’s another desperate team. ... We have to be ready to play," Bohannon said. "We just have to stay connected. That’s going to be the main thing the next two days. The best teams in March, they stay connected for 40 minutes."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.