The Iowa men’s basketball team saw a similar script unfold in front of its eyes Friday night during the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament.
The Hawkeyes had a big lead against No. 8 Michigan State only to see the lead evaporate in the final 10 minutes thanks to turnovers, poor offensive sets and some unfortunate calls from the officials.
No Iowa player scored in double figures and Iowa’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Aaron White had just five points and no boards in the 59-56 loss at the United Center.
“I’ve coached in a lot of games, a lot of seasons. I’ve coached in a lot of tournaments, NCAA tournaments,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “This team deserved a better fate tonight.”
Michigan State was supposed to win and did, but even coach Tom Izzo knew his team got outplayed. He didn’t have many positive things to say after the win and gave Iowa tons of credit.
The difference between the two programs is that Michigan State and Izzo have been in big moments before and come through. Iowa is working through some growing pains under McCaffery and can’t seem to close out big games when it needs to.
Many believe that Iowa is one of the top 34 at large teams in the country. It will just be hard to prove it with its resume. The Hawkeyes need to play a soft schedule early to get the youngsters acclimated to the college game. But that same schedule is what will likely prevent the Hawkeyes from earning their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007.
Michigan State came into the game with a 70-28 record in March under Izzo since the 1998-99 season. The Spartans also have won three Big Ten tourney titles.
They just know how to win. They have eliminated Iowa from the Big Ten tournament three straight years. The Spartans are the program several Big Ten teams want to become. Iowa is close. But it is not there yet.
Iowa is improving. There is no doubt about that. And this young team will eventually figure it out.
You could tell late in the game that the Hawkeyes had two freshmen at the point guard position. The ball handling was beyond suspect. They did turn it over 19 times.
It is hard to be disappointed at the season. The fans are clearly energized and just having Iowa back in the NCAA tourney discussion is a far cry from where it was before McCaffery arrived.
The toughest thing to take about yet another close loss Friday is that they outplayed the Spartans for most of the game and had a golden opportunity to win and perhaps end the NCAA tourney drought.
Now, the players, coaches and fans have to find a way to get back up for a trip to the NIT. The Hawkeyes will likely host one or two games, but this season definitely left the fans wanting more.
Before McCaffery arrived, fans had come to expect the team to lose more than it won. Now, fans see the improvement, are teased with strong efforts for 35 minutes and struggle as the Hawkeyes blow leads late in the game.
It is good to be in the conversation. Iowa wants more. Iowa needs more. And hopefully, the team can use this season as an experience and grow from it.
But it sure was fun to care this much into March.