Why No. 3 Hawkeyes are built to avoid 2014-style collapse

Chad Leistikow

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Should Iowa basketball fans have trepidation now that the Jay Bilas love is again overflowing for their team?

Jarrod Uthoff has been a cool customer in Iowa's five true road games this season. He's averaged 21.4 points in road venues, where the Hawkeyes are 4-1.

It was almost exactly two years ago that the Hawkeyes emerged as a national darling. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis had them as his Final Four dark horse, and ESPN’s Bilas tweeted on Jan. 22, 2014: “I've just watched every Iowa game since December. The Hawkeyes are as good as ANYONE. This is an underrated team good enough to win it all.”

What happened shortly thereafter, Iowa fans and players have tried to forget. Hours after Bilas’ tweet, the 2014 Hawkeyes lost in their first appearance in the top 10 under Fran McCaffery, and eventually they went from flavor of the week to flameout of the month with losses in seven of their final eight games.

“It’s a cruel game sometimes,” Iowa’s Adam Woodbury said Tuesday. “And it was very cruel to us that year.”

Well, the national love is back in full force, as Iowa has achieved his highest Associated Press ranking in 28 years. Unranked to start the season, the Hawkeyes are now picked nearly unanimously as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Led by all-America candidate Jarrod Uthoff, third-ranked Iowa is in Thursday night’s national spotlight with a 6 p.m. showdown at No. 8 Maryland on ESPN.

On Tuesday, Bilas tweeted to his 1 million-plus followers, “Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff doesn't have a television or Internet. He's missing out. His team is fun as hell to watch.”

Uthoff, by the way, clarified Tuesday that he does own a TV. (“I just don’t have cable,” he said.) But his steel-faced resolve and discipline to block outside pressure spreads to his teammates. And that’s why this group, alone in first place in the Big Ten Conference at 7-0, is brimming with confidence that a 2014-style collapse isn’t in the cards in 2016.

“We’re a lot more experienced, we’ve all been through it — talking about the experienced guys in the group — and you kind of learn from your mistakes as much as possible,” said Uthoff, one of four senior starters and the Big Ten’s leader in scoring (18.9 points a game) and blocked shots (3.0 on average) while shooting 48 percent from 3-point range. “I think our group this year is a lot closer. I really think that’s the key, why we’re all clicking.”

Specifically, what 2014 mistakes?

“I just talked about how close we are, and I think that’s the biggest thing,” Uthoff answered. “I think you’ve got to stay together and stay true to each other in order to keep having success.”

Led by Devyn Marble, the 2013 and 2014 Iowa teams were immensely talented but lost a lot of close games, especially on the road. As sophomores, current seniors Uthoff, Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell experienced repeated pain.

The Hawkeyes broke through the mental block of road games a year ago, when the Aaron White-led Hawkeyes were 7-3 in games as a visitor, including wins at North Carolina, Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana.

That confidence has bled into this team, which has been knocking out heavyweights at two of the league’s tougher road venues — Purdue’s Mackey Arena and Michigan State’s Breslin Center — in assembling its best Big Ten start in 46 years.

“We weren’t able to finish out close road games,” Clemmons said of 2014. “I think the guys that were here, we were sick of it. That’s what made our team so effective the last two years.”

Clemmons even said he prefers playing on the road over Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It’s a similar sentiment that brimmed from members of Iowa’s football team during their 12-0 regular season, because road trips can enhance the family feel and the us-against-the-world mentality required to overcome a top team in a hostile environment.

“It's hard to communicate (on the road) sometimes, so you have to really communicate with each other,” McCaffery said, “and you have to pull each other over and you have to help and support one another on the floor.”

But in Maryland (17-3, 6-2), the 16-3 Hawkeyes are heading somewhere they’ve never played — the Xfinity Center, where the Terrapins are 13-0 in conference play since joining the Big Ten. Uthoff was asked about the challenges of playing in an unfamiliar arena. True to his character, the Cedar Rapids native replied: “There are none.”

Those three words underscore the Hawkeyes’ current state of confidence. It’s why Uthoff is glad Iowa is about to play another conference heavyweight. When you’re hot, why not?

A win would give Iowa an 8-0 Big Ten mark, including a 5-for-5 mark against the three preseason conference favorites that it won’t play again in the regular season. The Hawkeyes would be done with the toughest part of their Big Ten schedule, with home dates against Northwestern and Penn State on deck. Two games against No. 19 Indiana (7-1) come later.

“It would just put us that much closer to a Big Ten title,” Clemmons said. “That’s the goal.”

But let’s suppose Iowa’s nine-game winning streak ends at Maryland, which has one of the nation’s most impressive rosters and point guards in Melo Trimble — not to mention must-win motivation against a team already two games ahead in the loss column.

If the Terrapins cut down the nation’s hottest team, should worry kick in about the ghost of Bilas’ tweets and 2014?

It sure seems like this team’s chemistry is too strong to let one loss bust them up.

“I think it’s shown in our play, the way we share the ball, the way we cheer each other on, the way we pick each other off the floor, things like that,” Woodbury said. “If anybody’s having an off night, guys are rallying around them trying to pick them up.”

NO. 3 IOWA (16-3, 7-0) AT NO. 8 MARYLAND (17-3, 6-2)

When, where: 6 p.m. CT Thursday, Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.

TV: ESPN (Announcers: Adam Amin, Dan Dakich)

Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius/XM Channel 84.

Game notes: Iowa has won 13 consecutive regular-season Big Ten games, giving sixth-year coach Fran McCaffery a 49-48 mark in league play. He started 3-14. ... McCaffery has coached twice at the Xfinity Center – losing as UNC-Greensboro’s coach on Dec. 23, 2003 (85-58) then with Siena on Dec. 30, 2006 (94-75). … Five Terrapins average double figures in points: Melo Trimble (14.5), Robert Carter (13.2), Diamond Stone (13.2), Jake Layman (10.7) and Rasheed Sulaimon (10.3). … Trimble scored 20 points in Maryland’s only meeting vs. Iowa last year, a 71-55 loss in Iowa City. “Last year he was just a freshman, and I thought he was one of the best players I played against all last year,” Hawkeye point guard Mike Gesell said. “He’s a much better player this year. It’ll be sweet to match up against him.” … Maryland ranks eighth nationally in free-throw percentage (.763). … The Hawkeyes have made at least 10 3-pointers in four consecutive games.