Next step for Iowa men's program? Winning close games

Rick Brown
Winning close games the next challenge for Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes

Playing without starters Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, No. 6 Michigan State snapped Iowa's 20-game home-court winning streak in overtime last season 71-69.

It was one of Tom Izzo's most satisfying victories in his 19 seasons as the Spartans' head coach.

"A gutty effort," Izzo recalled this month at the Big Ten's annual basketball media day. "And it was one of Fran's worst losses. Because they had control of that game, but not enough to put us away."

Iowa's lack of a knockout punch in that game was a theme for the entire season, Fran McCaffery's fourth as the Hawkeyes' coach. Iowa was 2-8 in games decided by five points or less, or in overtime.

Izzo, who has coached Michigan State to six Final Fours and a national title, has his program to the point where they expect to win close games. The Spartans were 7-4 last season in games decided by five points or less, or in overtime. Iowa, still a work in progress under McCaffery, hasn't reached that level of expectation yet.

"The problems you have when you're trying to build something is you have to change the team first," Izzo said. "And then you have to try and change the program. You add a new facility, you get a little better player, you do this, you do that. And then the next step is changing the culture. The fans are starting to come back, and they're getting more of a home-court advantage."

Which leads us to the last step in the process. A step that might be the hardest to take.

"The players have to know how to win," Izzo said. "It's part of changing the culture. And I think that is his (McCaffery's) next big step to take. And knowing him, you're going to make that step."

Iowa has gone to postseason play in each of the last three seasons under McCaffery. During that time, the Hawkeyes are 8-18 in games decided by five points or less, or in overtime. Five times, the Hawkeyes have had the ball for the last possession of regulation with a chance to win the game. They lost all five in overtime.

"I really like their team," former coach turned ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. "I think they've got to get a little better finishing at the end of games. I asked Fran, 'Who is going to make a play at the end of games? Who is going to make a stop at the end of games? Who is going to do the things you need to close out a game?' "

McCaffery took a program that had dropped into oblivion and gave it a pulse again. Fans have returned to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa has won 20 games in back-to-back seasons and is coming off the first NCAA Tournament appearance in eight seasons.

But last season's sour finish was a negative footnote. Seven losses in the last eight games. Many of them close games that were determined in the final minute or in overtime.

McCaffery subscribes to the theory that his team needs to learn to win close games.

"I think there is a certain amount of truth to that," McCaffery said.

But last season's skid runs deeper than that.

"We were sitting there at 19-6," McCaffery said. "We were winning pretty good."

McCaffery makes no bones about his team's loss of defensive focus over those last eight games. Iowa's first 12 Big Ten opponents averaged 69.1 points a game. In the last eight, including Big Ten and NCAA Tournament games, foes averaged 80.0.

Iowa's scoring dipped, from 78.2 points to 74.7. The Hawkeyes shot just 30.2 percent from 3-point range over the last eight games, while opponents shot 41 percent.

Greenberg circles four games in eight days, a condensed schedule brought on by that falling piece of metal from the ceiling of Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. That forced Iowa's Feb.15 game at Indiana to be played nine days later.

"You can only flip that switch so many times," Greenberg said. "When you play in a league like the Big Ten, there's a cumulative effect."

Now another season is on the horizon, a chance for Iowa's program to take one more positive step.

"You can learn a lot from the good things that happen to you," Iowa senior forward Aaron White said. "But you learn more from the bad things that happen."

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.