MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. End-of-game collapses have become repetitive for the Iowa men's basketball team.
The Hawkeyes (14-8, 3-6 Big Ten) have lost three league games by three points or less. In each one, the team has had opportunities to win only to let the games and possibly its NCAA tournament hopes slide away. Sunday's 62-59 loss at Minnesota was just the latest version.
"It has been missed free throws and poor execution in all of those games," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "What is odd about that is our execution prior to that has been pretty good. Well you could say we have juggled our point guard. We have had Mike (Gesell) at point guard, then it was (Anthony) Clemmons, and now it is Mike, and at times it was (Devyn) Marble. It is great to have three guys who can play point guard, but you are bouncing around and those guys have been pretty darn good, but not as sharp as we need to be."
Poor free-throw shooting and a key turnover proved pivotal in a 65-62 home loss against Michigan State. After taking a 12-point first-half lead, Iowa stumbled late at the free-throw line. The Hawkeyes missed four of 10 free throws in the game's final three minutes. With the game tied and 50 seconds left, Gesell's pass was picked off by Michigan State's Branden Dawson for a breakaway slam. The basket gave the Spartans the lead permanently.
Execution killed the Hawkeyes in a 65-62 overtime road loss at Purdue. After a wretched 7-for-40 shooting start and trailing by 11 with eight minutes left, Iowa clawed back to take a three-point lead with 2:11 left. On the final play of regulation, Marble drove to the basket but missed a three-foot floater. Iowa then missed three free throws in overtime.
"The free-throw situation is frustrating because to play as well as we have played and to be in that position, you want to be able to close the game out and make your free throws," McCaffery said. "We haven't done that, and when you are doing both of those things, it makes it hard."
Iowa trailed by 12 early against Minnesota, then took the lead with 17:38 left. Leading by three with 3 minutes to go, the Hawkeyes nearly put the game away with an Aaron White steal and drive to the basket. But White missed, and follow-up attempts by Gesell and Clemmons also failed. Minnesota's Austin Hollins rebounded, tossed an outlet pass to Rodney Williams, who dunked the Gophers within one point.
Iowa rallied with an Eric May drive and free throw to go up four. After the Gophers cut the lead to two, then suffered a backcourt violation, Iowa produced back-to-back turnovers, losing the lead, then the game.
"It's tough to lose a game like that, especially since we feel like we had it won," Gesell said. "We've got to learn from it, we've got to start from the get-go. We've done that too many times this season."
It's a fine line between 6-3 and 3-6. More importantly, it's a major distinction between 14-8 and 17-5.
"It hurts a lot for us," Iowa junior Zach McCabe said.
1. Little margin for error. It's no surprise that Iowa lost on the road at No. 23 Minnesota. But Iowa should have won the game, and now the team no longer can afford an "oops" game. Home games against Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska don't appear quite the gimmees as they once did. Games at Penn State and Nebraska have the potential for "oops" moments. If Iowa wants to go to the NCAA tournament, the mulligans are over.
2. Marble tough to figure out. Devyn Marble always had a swagger regardless of the situation. When snagging the ire of Coach Fran McCaffery, Marble had no problem letting the comments roll off his back. Now it appears he's lost all confidence. He was out for more than an 11-minute stretch during the second half. When the team's leading scorer doesn't fight for minutes in vital situations, the team has a problem. It must get corrected quickly or Iowa's season will spin well out of control.
3. Saturday is most important game. Regardless of what happens Wednesday at Wisconsin, Iowa's game Saturday at home against Northwestern is the most pivotal this season. The Hawkeyes embarrassed the Wildcats 70-50 at Evanston three weeks ago. Northwestern has played much better and is off this week until traveling to Iowa City. BTN and Northwestern basketball analyst Tim Doyle called it a "winnable" game for the Wildcats on the team's postgame radio show Saturday.
A loss to Northwestern could cripple the Hawkeyes' postseason hopes and send the Iowa fan base into a weekend rant. It's obvious the Wildcats will be more rested and ready for Iowa. The question is, will Iowa be ready for Northwestern?