Pat Harty: Hawks back from the ashes

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen

There was an optimistic buzz in the air as the Iowa men's basketball team held its annual media day event Thursday.

It was mostly just like any other media day as the players signed autographs, posed for photos and spoke confidently about the upcoming season and how they're determined to seize the moment.

The only difference with this media day was the stench left over from last season's collapse in which Iowa lost seven of its final eight games.

The past isn't normally a hot topic at media day, but it's hard for the Iowa players to escape their past because of the bizarre and disturbing end to last season.

"I know a lot of questions today will be, 'What happened down the stretch,' and, 'What did you learn down the stretch?' " senior forward Aaron White said. "But I learned a lot from the beginning and being (ranked) No. 10 in the country and having those expectations and playing great on the road and at home.

"So I learned how to be successful at this level. And then I also learned what you have to do to stop the train from going down the wrong path."

The slump at the end of last season came with no warning and then festered until the end, one deflating loss after another, made worse by Iowa State's success in the same sport at the same time.

White and his cohorts were on the verge of soaring to incredible heights last season, but then something went terribly wrong, something that still defies explanation to this day.

The same Iowa team that climbed to as high as No. 10 in the national rankings unraveled down the stretch.

The same Iowa team that crushed Big Ten power Michigan 85-67 on Feb. 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena lost to lowly Illinois 66-63 exactly one month later at home.

The same Iowa team that swept the regular-season series against Northwestern, winning each game by at least 24 points, lost to the struggling Wildcats 67-62 in the first round of the 2014 Big Ten Tournament.

Iowa still made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, but just barely. The postseason experience also didn't last very long as the Hawkeyes lost to Tennessee 78-65 in the first round.

"I think that just motivates us even more this year to realize how good we were last year and how special we can be this year," senior shooting guard Josh Oglesby said.

What is motivation to Oglesby is cause for concern to fans, who now wonder if Iowa still is ascending as Fran McCaffery enters his fifth season as coach. Anything short of another NCAA Tournament appearance would be a major disappointment, especially when you consider how last season ended and that Iowa already has played in the National Invitational Tournament twice under McCaffery.

The collapse at the end of last season was the only time in four seasons under McCaffery that Iowa didn't have positive momentum.

"It's not always going to be sunny days," White said. "I kind of like how people are doubting us, especially this offseason. We're not getting as much love as we were last year.

"And I like being in that underdog role. People think that we may not be as good as last year. But I think we can better."

In addition to how last season ended, the loss of all-Big Ten guard Devyn Marble to graduation is fueling doubts about Iowa. Marble, who is now a member of the NBA's Orlando Magic, was clearly Iowa's best offensive player last season, earning first-team all-Big accolades. And yet the team fell apart down the stretch despite him performing well.

The naysayers now question whether Iowa can compete for a Big Ten title without Marble when it couldn't do it with him. Forwards Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe also were key performers who used up their eligibility as seniors last season.

It's a fair question about Marble that eventually will be answered with how the current team performs. Maybe the returning players will take it upon themselves to be more aggressive on offense knowing that Marble isn't around to take the big shots.

But in McCaffery's opinion, defense — or the lack of it — is what led to Iowa's demise last season.

"We didn't defend," McCaffery said.

There is evidence to support that as Iowa surrendered 95 and 93 points, respectively, in back-to-back losses at Minnesota and Indiana in late February. Michigan State also poured in 86 points during a 10-point victory over Iowa in early March.

But there was more to last season's collapse than just shabby defense. The Hawkeyes also struggled to rebound down the stretch and they never shot consistently well from the perimeter. Iowa shot at least 50 percent from the field in just seven of 33 games last season.

There were rumors last season suggesting the team was divided and that tension off the court was negatively impacting the performance on the court. The players denied the rumors as the slump worsened last season and again Thursday.

"I still get the question every day, 'What happened last year?' " Oglesby said. "Obviously, there were rumors going around. But none of those were true.

"How we did lose seven of the eight games is still mind boggling to me and everybody else."

It's mind boggling because Iowa was thought to have so much talent and experience last season. The current squad also has plenty of talent and experience, including 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury, who is now a junior with 71 consecutive starts under his belt, and 6-9 junior forward Jarrod Uthoff, who is expected to be more of a go-to player on offense this season.

The program has climbed back from the ashes under McCaffery, but now comes the toughest part of the climb.

"I feel very good about where we are, but you never— you don't ever develop any level of complacency like we've arrived, you've never arrived," McCaffery said. "You're constantly trying to improve what you already have and improve what's here."

Improving on last season is probably the only acceptable option for fans at this point.

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