Brown: Senior's savvy likely seals Iowa an NCAA berth

Rick Brown
Penn State's Devin Foster tries to steal the ball from Iowa's Aaron White during their NCAA college basketball game at Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Sneaky guy, that Aaron White.

With Iowa clinging to a 75-74 lead and 29.2 seconds remaining in overtime, Penn State's D.J. Newbill went to make an in-bounds pass. White faked like he was running down the floor, then cut back in the passing lane and made a steal.


"The play of the game," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team pretty much sealed an NCAA Tournament bid with an 81-77 victory. "Somebody had to make a play. He made it."

White's thievery, and his six free throws in the final 29 seconds, got the Hawkeyes over the top. He finished with 21 points and a season-high 14 rebounds.

But his crafty steal was the buzz afterward.

"I kind of baited (Newbill) into it," White said. "I was just trying to make a play for our team. A saavy basketball play. Something I kind of pride myself in."

White's mood was in a much better place than it was Feb. 15 after an overtime loss at Northwestern, when he was 1-for-12 from the field and scored six points in a loss. That defeat, piled on top of a disappointing home loss to Minnesota earlier that week, had a lot of people buying into a sky-is-falling sequel.

"We'd been going through the motions," White said. "After that, we put our minds together and refocused ourselves and rededicated ourselves to winning."

Four consecutive Big Ten victories later — something an Iowa team hasn't strung together since the 2005-06 season — has this season in a much different place now.

It also has McCaffery on the cusp of a $150,000 raise (to $2 million in 2015-16) and a two-year contract extension (through the 2021-22 season). I asked McCaffery if he felt if Saturday's victory got his team an NCAA invitation.

"You'll have to ask (ESPN bracketologist) Joe Lunardi ," McCaffery said, wry smile included. "He's the expert."

Iowa improved to 10-6 in the Big Ten and 19-10 overall. It's the program's first winning Big Ten season since 2006-07. The Hawkeyes were 9-9 in each of the past two seasons.

Iowa picked up its sixth win in the month of February, something that hasn't happened since 1991. More importantly, it assured it a winning record in Big Ten play (18-game schedule) on the road for the first time since the 1986-87 season. The Hawkeyes are 5-3 with a game remaining Tuesday at Indiana.

Iowa had a 5-3 road record in 1997-98 when it played a 16-game schedule.

"When it's all said and done, if you want to be a good team in this league, you've got to be able to maintain your composure on the road to win a game like this," McCaffery said.

That winning record includes the overtime loss at Northwestern and a 67-63 loss at Purdue, two games Iowa led in the final minute of regulation. The only real "oops" moment was a 32-point meltdown at Wisconsin.

McCaffery has been pushing a lot of the right buttons down the stretch. A different player seems to step up at key times. On Saturday, the senior trio of White, Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby — yes, Josh Oglesby — earned top billing.

There should be an investigation of White, who had a career-high 29 points in Wednesday's victory over Illinois, isn't the Big Ten player of the week come Monday. Olaseni made all eight of his free throws and finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. Oglesby made a season-high four 3-pointers in eight attempts.

And he did it even though he woke up with pinkeye in his left eye. McCaffery told him after the game that he should play at Indiana with a pair of pink eyes.

"That coach," Oglesby said. "He's a character."