Sunday’s loss to Purdue hurt but was not crippling for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
A win may have been what Iowa needed to get back into the NCAA Tournament conversation, but there are plenty of games left to show what it’s made of.
As it stands right now, the Hawkeyes come into Thursday’s home game with struggling Penn State with a league record of 2-5. That ninth place standing won’t get them into the dance but a 9-9 finish in Big Ten play might.
“It would be no different if we were 5-2,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “We would take the exact same approach. If we were 7-0, we would take the exact same approach. It's still a grind. We still have a ton of road games coming up. These are the dog days, when you get into February, and that's what's going to separate the teams that are going to be playing well in March and the teams that doesn't. It doesn't matter if you're 2-5 or 5-2.”
To get to 9-9, Iowa needs to go 7-4 the rest of the way. Those seven games could come from its six remaining home games – Northwestern, No. 23 Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue – and the road game against Penn State, which is winless in the Big Ten. They also could be 10-8 in league play with a road win at Nebraska.
“We have to win our next game, that's what we've got to do; and then we've got to win the game after that, and the game after that,” McCaffery said. “And if we lose, we'd better play well and feel like we've made progress and learn from our mistakes. We lost in overtime Sunday. We made a ton of mistakes. If we don't make two of those, we win the game.”
Win those games, and you give yourself a pretty good chance at 21-10 to get into the tournament, especially if the Hawkeyes can win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Win a road game against Wisconsin, Minnesota or Indiana and I think the Hawkeyes are definitely in.
First thing is first though.
The Hawks have to start the run to the NCAA Tournament with a win over Penn State, which comes into the game 8-12 overall and 0-8 in league play. The Nittany Lions also lost their best player and All-Big Ten selection Tim Frazier during the non-conference season.
Thursday night’s game against Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is a must-win. So are the rest of their home games.
“The bottom line is we have to cut down on our mistakes, in particular at crunch time,” McCaffery said.
The Hawks are in the middle of a 4-of-6 and 5-of-7 stretch of road games. But they are 10-2 at home where Thursday’s game will take place starting at 7:02 p.m. The students will be admitted free, it is Herky Bobblehead Night and Family Four Pack Night, where families of four can get four tickets, four hot dogs and four Cokes for $70.
The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions have split the last eight games and each won on their home floors last season. Iowa has won 15 of 22 in the series, including 12 of the last 13 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are 14-3 all-time in Iowa City. Penn State is 0-4 in true road games this season and Iowa’s average margin of victory in the last nine wins in the series is 14.5 points.
For Iowa to be successful, junior guard Roy Devyn Marble has to play better. He is still leading the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game but is just 4-of-22 in his last two games and 8-of-30 in his last three. He took a few questionable shots late in the loss to Purdue on Sunday and has struggled to make outside shots as he is 2-of-9 from long range in the last three games.
The team as a whole is shooting less than 30 percent from 3-point range.
“It's frustrating because the guys have really battled for us,” McCaffery said. “We are in a position to win all these games. Obviously, I mean, if we win some of those, we would probably be ranked. That's what I want.
“And you know, Marble was a guy that would make game winners for us last year, and I'm going to him and they are rimming out. They are good shots and I would go right back to him. You know, that's what I tell him. And, eventually, I think they will go in.”
Aaron White is up to 13.4 points per game and leads the team in rebounding at 6.1.
Freshman Mike Gesell, one of three true freshmen in McCaffery’s starting lineup, is averaging 9.3 points per game and is coming off an 18-point performance against Purdue.
If the Hawkeye starters continue to struggle, the bench has been reliable, scoring 25.3 points per contest as a group. The best of the bunch lately has been Melsahn Basabe, who is averaging 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per night in his last five outings.
Basabe has been so good that McCaffery may insert him into the starting lineup.
“Obviously he's playing well,” McCaffery said. “So the logical conclusion is, we'll just put him in the starting lineup. It may be the right thing for the team; it may not be, because he's playing the best basketball of the last two years coming off the bench.”
Without Frazier, the Nittany Lions have been led by D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, who both average better than 15 points per game. Ross Travis also leads the teams in rebounding at better than six per contest.
“Now, you take a big weapon out of the lineup but you still have adjusted to that injury,” McCaffery said. “They are still playing phenomenally hard defensively. On the glass, they are incredibly physical and tenacious. They are going to battle you as hard and as long as anybody else in college basketball.”
The game will tip-off at 7:02 p.m. and can be seen on ESPNU. The attendance is expected to reach 14,000-plus.