Analysis: Sky isn't falling for Hawkeyes after tough loss

Chad Leistikow

AMES, Ia. – A year ago at this time, Iowa men's basketball was in a lot worse shape than it is today.

A year ago, the Hawkeyes weren't in the same league as Iowa State in a humbling 90-75 home loss that wasn’t that close. A week later at the Big Four Classic, the Hawkeyes were offensively inept, falling 56-44 to Northern Iowa. Remember what happened in the next three months? Iowa finished tied for third in the Big Ten Conference and recorded the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory in 14 years.

So, as much as Thursday’s 83-82 loss to No. 4-ranked Iowa State hurts, these 7-3 Hawkeyes are in a good place. It was almost surprising how key players took a big-picture approach minutes after suffering what had to be one of the most disheartening defeats of their college careers.

Iowa State's Monte Morris drives to the basket as Iowa's Mike Gesell defends on Thursday in Ames. Iowa did a lot of things right, but not enough of them in an 83-82 loss.

“There’s a lot of positives we can take from it,” senior point guard Mike Gesell said. “It’s one of the top teams in the country. And we handled them most of the game. We just weren’t able to pull it out. It kind of shows how good we can be if we put it together a full game.”

Iowa led by 20 points, 62-42, early in the second half at Hilton Coliseum – where the Cyclones are 67-5 in the last five seasons. But before we go any further, let’s be clear: Squandering a 20-point second-half lead anywhere is tough to take.

Mistakes piled up in the last 2½ minutes, as the Cyclones closed on a 9-0 run – starting with Iowa’s lack of concentration, on defense and with a 5-second violation, in one of the noisiest arenas the Hawkeyes will experience all season.

“That sums it all up. Locking in on the details of defense,” guard Anthony Clemmons said. “We (needed) that grit of really getting a stop.”

Added Jarrod Uthoff, who had 30 of his career-high 32 points in the first half: “We just made a couple mistakes down the line that we shouldn’t have. Learn from them, and hopefully get better.”

State bragging rights aside, oh how Iowa would love to have a road win over a top-five team in its pocket come March – much how a win at North Carolina on Dec. 3, 2014, carried so much Big Dance weight.

But this team is still forming its identity, 10 games into the 2015-16 season. Key leaders Devyn Marble and Aaron White of the past few years are gone, and five starters that have combined for 487 college games are trying to blend with a young group of work-in-progress bench players.

Even the sixth-year head coach is learning. Fran McCaffery admitted Thursday he got too stingy with substitutions in the second half. McCaffery, who normally deploys a nine- or 10-man rotation, went only two-deep on his bench in the second half (Dom Uhl for 11 minutes, walk-on Nicholas Baer for three).

Redshirt freshman guard Brady Ellingson (four minutes) did not play after halftime. No true freshman played, including interior spark Ahmad Wagner. Clemmons, Gesell, Uthoff and Adam Woodbury each played at least 35 total minutes. Peter Jok (29) would have played more if not for a contact lens issue.

“We didn’t give Brady much of a shot in the second half,” McCaffery said. “In retrospect, maybe I should’ve gone to somebody else – Ahmad Wagner, Brady again, fresher bodies.

“When they closed it to one (71-70), we subbed, and some fresh bodies got us a lead back again. That was a turning point, I thought, at that point. We had a comfortable lead (82-74) we could get home with.”

Except it wasn’t comfortable enough. And now this team is dealing with the discomfort of letting a second game in its clutches slip away. Iowa led 75-71 late against a good Dayton team on Nov. 26, but folded in the last two minutes, giving up an 11-2 finishing run to lose, 82-77, in Orlando, Fla.

Nine days separate Iowa’s Thursday heartbreak and its next game, Dec. 19 against Drake in Wells Fargo Arena. Win that and beat Tennessee Tech on Dec. 22, and the Hawkeyes are a respectable 9-3 entering Big Ten play against a strong nonconference schedule.

Things could be better. And things might very well get better, if last December at this time is a guide.

“We have no choice but to bounce back. We’re a great team at bouncing back,” Jok said. “It’s going to hurt for a few days, but we’re going to have to let go of it.”