Register sports reporter Chris Cuellar breaks down Iowa’s matchup against Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament this week.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The Iowa basketball team’s four senior starters have always had extremely high expectations, for themselves and the program. That drive has fueled great success, yet also contributed to gut-wrenching agony along the way.
Even in leading Iowa to three straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time in 2½ decades, there’s regret.
“I’m still (ticked) off we didn’t go to four,” Adam Woodbury says. “I still feel like we should’ve went my freshman year.”
Close calls have partially defined the careers of Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff and Woodbury. The one Woodbury referred to was just missing the 2013 tournament after Iowa’s seven Big Ten Conference losses by four points or less, including one at lowly Nebraska after squandering a 16-point halftime lead.
Yet their careers should also be remembered for bringing Iowa back to conference and national relevancy. Before these guys arrived, Iowa wasn’t involved in many close calls at all.
Even though Fran McCaffery’s second team was much better than the patchwork first group he inherited from Todd Lickliter, 12 the 2011-12 Hawkeyes’ 17 losses were by double digits. This year? Zero.
No question, the commitments of Woodbury and Gesell – both top-100 recruits who took a chance on McCaffery’s vision and have since started 263 college games – carried great impact.
Gesell has already set a single-season assists record at Iowa – he needs six to become the first Hawkeye with 200.
Woodbury this year became the first Hawkeye since 2001-02 to average double-digit rebounds (10.0) in conference play.
Clemmons doesn’t boast the stats of the others, but has been a glue guy, defensive stopper and has emerged as the team’s third-leading scorer.
And Uthoff, who transferred in from Wisconsin, has merely become Iowa’s most decorated player since Ronnie Lester, earning multiple second-team all-America honors so far and a unanimous first-team all-Big Ten selection. He also made the Big Ten’s all-defense team after leading the conference in blocked shots.
All told, this senior class has pieced together 88 victories in four years, third-most in Hawkeye history behind the legendary 1989 (97 wins) and 1988 (95) classes. All four years resulted in upper-division Big Ten finishes, and their third Big Dance begins with Friday’s 2:10 p.m. first-round game against Temple at Barclays Arena.
“It’s really hard to do that,” McCaffery said. “That’s what makes us feel so good, to be able to watch these kids. It’s not about us as coaches, it’s about these players and what they’ve been determined to do. And that was come here and build a consistent winner.”
Just think if Iowa had even a .500 record in down-to-the-wire finishes.
In the past four seasons, the Hawkeyes are 9-24 (.272 winning percentage) in games decided by five points or less (including 2-6 this year). That accounts for half of their 48 career losses.
This season, that’s been accentuated. In the final 10 seconds of games this year, Iowa has had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead seven times. Not once have the Hawkeyes converted.
It happened in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois, in which Iowa had the ball down 68-66 with 4 seconds left, but Gesell threw away an inbounds pass from underneath the Illini basket for a painful reminder that this team still has another hump to get over.
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If Iowa is going to get past the first week of the NCAA Tournament, more than likely it’ll have to make clutch plays down the stretch. McCaffery remains confident in – and proud of – his players.
“We’ve had winning streaks; we’ve had losing streaks. But they have remained together,” said McCaffery, who is making his eighth NCAA Tournament appearance as a coach but has never been to the Sweet 16. He’s got a hump to get over, too. “We have stuck with those guys because we know the character that they have and the talent that they have.
“We have to make sure in this setting, you take care of rebounding, you take care of the basketball, you move the ball. You give your team every chance to win the game. I have total trust in my guys.”
Gesell has unfairly become the face of Iowa’s late-game miscues, because he ends up with the ball in his hands as the point guard. At Ohio State, he did everything right, getting all the way to the basket but Buckeyes forward Keita Bates-Diop swatted away his dunk attempt that would’ve tied the game.
He and his fellow seniors are ready to turn the page and write a new chapter to their Hawkeye careers. In fact, they expect to.
“We have the highest expectations for ourselves,” Gesell said. “We’re a confident team.
“It’s a new season starting now. Nothing matters that happened before in the season. Now we’re just ready to go.”
CLOSE BUT NOT QUITE
Iowa this season has had the ball seven times (in six games) with a chance to tie or lead in the final 10 seconds, yet has zero conversions. The breakdown:
Opponent, score – Time left, what happened (final score)
Dayton, down 80-77 – :04, Peter Jok missed 3-pointer (Lost, 82-77)
Florida State, tied 63-63 – :02, Mike Gesell turnover (Won in OT, 78-75)
Iowa State, down 83-82 – :00, Jarrod Uthoff missed 3-pointer (Lost, 83-82)
Ohio State, down 66-64 – :03, Gesell layup attempt blocked (Lost, 68-64)
Indiana, down 81-78 – :03, Anthony Clemmons missed 3-pointer
Indiana, down 81-78 – :01, Jok missed 3-pointer after timeout (Lost, 81-78)
Illinois, down 68-66 – :02, Gesell turnover on inbounds pass (Lost, 68-66)
Matchup: South Region, first round, No. 7 Iowa (21-10) vs. No. 10 Temple (21-11)
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Time, TV: 2:10 p.m. CT, truTV (Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel)
The line: Iowa is favored by 7.5 points
Coverage: HawkCentral.com’s Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) is on site, along with photographer Brian Powers (@bpowersphoto)