Brown: Seniors instrumental in returning Iowa basketball to relevance

Rick Brown

One game at a time is a coach-speak classic. It's also been part of Fran McCaffery's philosophy since he got his first head coaching gig at Lehigh 30 years ago.

"I've never done it any other way," the Iowa basketball coach said. "You hope you have a team that understands that."

This Hawkeye team is all in. One game at a time isn't a coaching cliche to them. It's a mantra.

"I just know this team is dedicated to one game at a time, and what it means to win each game," said Aaron White, the Big Ten's hottest player.

One game at a time carries double meaning Saturday when Iowa hosts Northwestern. It will be the final game for White and fellow seniors Gabe Olaseni, Josh Oglesby and Kyle Denning at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"Kind of crazy to think about," White said. "It will be a great sendoff for us seniors. Still a lot of season left. A lot of postseason opportunity. But a special day."

About as crazy as predicting the Hawkeyes would run off five straight victories after losing to the Wildcats in overtime on Feb. 15. Saturday will be an emotional day. Senior days always are.

Olaseni has played with a heavy heart ever since his father, Benson, passed away on Nov. 26. His mother, Yvette, a sister and a brother will travel from London, England, to see him play in Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first time on Saturday.

"We have to win this one," Olaseni said. "My mom said if we don't, I'm in trouble. That's added incentive."

A victory would give Iowa a 12-6 Big Ten record. To put that in perspective, consider this: Iowa won just four league games in 2010-11, McCaffery's first season. The program also had just four league wins in 2009-08 and five the year before that. So 13 in three years. And now a chance for 12 in one.

This is not the greatest team in Iowa history, but it will be remembered as one of the most important. White, Olaseni and Oglesby agreed to join a program that was coming off an 11-20 season. And a program-record fourth straight losing season. But they bought McCaffery's vision for the future.

"This will be an emotional day, especially in light of the fact that Gabe lost his father not so long ago," McCaffery said. "Josh was the first guy that was a marquee Iowa kid to say yes. That means a lot to me. And Aaron will go down as one of the all-time greats."

Denning came as a walk-on and earned a scholarship his senior year. His biggest contributions have come in practice on the scout team. Add it all up and this senior class has played a significant role in Iowa's return to basketball relevance.

White is now tied with Greg Stokes for third on Iowa's career scoring list with 1,768 points. A dozen more and he'll move past Acie Earl and into second. He needs five more rebounds to move past Ed Horton and into third in career rebounding.

"Think about the guys on that list," McCaffery said. "Pretty amazing."

White reached those heights in a way that McCaffery appreciates. He did it one game at a time.