Why Hawkeyes are surprisingly upbeat despite latest loss

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The mood among No. 15 Iowa’s players after Tuesday 81-78 loss to No. 11 Indiana was notably positive – legitimately positive.

How’s that, you ask?

Senior guard Anthony Clemmons spoke with a smile as if the Hawkeyes had just found the key to unlock why they’ve lost four games in a row for the first time since that ill-fated 2014 season-ending slide.

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The bench was back.

“If it wasn’t for our bench, we’d probably lose by 20,” Clemmons said. “That’s what we’ve been preaching to the guys all along.”

During Iowa’s previous five games (four losses), the bench was outscored 28-0, 27-6, 29-10, 23-4 and 18-10. Ugly numbers.

On Tuesday night, Iowa scored 27 bench points (to Indiana's 19) after getting blanked in Bloomington on Feb. 11. Freshman Ahmad Wagner scored 11 points with nine rebounds. Freshman Nicholas Baer’s back-to-back 3-pointers rallied Iowa from a 14-point deficit to tie Indiana 70-70. And, most surprising, freshman Christian Williams was given his first extended meaningful minutes and responded with a career-high eight points.

“Christian was unbelievable. … Now he’s able to contribute,” Clemmons said. “Nick Baer’s back to making big shots in big moments. Once we get Dom (Uhl, two points) back, we’re pretty much back to the same team.”

When Iowa was rolling earlier in the season toward a top-five national ranking, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery viewed a young, productive bench as the big reason. His reserves scored 22 points at Marquette, 19 vs. Michigan State, 22 vs. Michigan, 19 vs. Purdue, 28 vs. Penn State.

That’s the production Iowa needs going forward – not zero points, not six, not four.

“You think about the games we lost, if that bench gives that same effort, we win those games,” Clemmons said. “I’m not really blaming it all on them every step, but that just gives coach the confidence to put you in and he knows what he’s going to get out of you, and go with his five guys at the end of the game that’s going to win it for you.”

So, next up: Saturday's regular-season finale at Michigan, a team Iowa beat 82-71 on Jan. 17, back when things were good.

For Iowa, that’s when the postseason needs to begin. A win, and the Hawkeyes could be feeling back on track – most likely as a No. 5 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis – and gaining momentum when it counts the most.

It’s not just Clemmons who seemed looser after the game. While losing was painful for seniors Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff in their final home appearance, they recognized there were positives. Woodbury joked that it would be hard to play any worse than they did in losses to unranked foes Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

“I thought we showed way more toughness in this game,” Uthoff added, “especially fighting back from a 14-point deficit.”

Senior Mike Gesell also had pep in his voice – a stark contrast from the dejection across the board two nights earlier in Columbus – as Iowa committed single-digit turnovers for the first time in 16 days.

“We’re fine. We’re improving,” Gesell said. “We hit a little slump, but I think we’re getting better every game. It stinks not winning them, but this is the time you want to start peaking. I think we made strides tonight.”

McCaffery told his guys afterward he was proud of them. He thought their execution was better. Still, shots aren’t falling. That's an issue.

With a Big Ten regular-season championship it pressed so hard to win no longer possible, maybe now Iowa has gone back to feeling no pressure and getting back to the type of team that was being projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament just three weeks ago.

That’s the hope, anyway.

“We still have more regular season left. We’ve got the Big Ten Tournament,” Clemmons said. “After that, it’s time to win a national championship.”