NORTH LIBERTY — Make no mistake about it: last season left a mark on incoming seniors of the Iowa men’s basketball team. A year with high expectations, a midseason top-10 ranking and the hype of a potential Final Four run fizzled into a 1-7 finish and a first-round NCAA tournament exit.
The reminders of their failure were almost in their face. Tennessee, which beat Iowa in overtime, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, where it lost to Big Ten champion Michigan in overtime. Every basketball game they watched seemed to give them a reminder of their inadequacies and their season. It was painful.
“Obviously it’s a feeling that we can’t forget, especially watching the NCAA tournament and seeing Tennessee go as far as they did,” senior guard Josh Oglesby said. “Then you look at Michigan, who they lined up with, who we beat at home by (18) and you’re just sitting there and … that could be us.”
“It took a little while for me, to be honest,” senior Aaron White said about getting over last season. “I struggled watching the NCAA tournament from when we got knocked out. We had a great team. Not to live in the past, but we had a great opportunity.”
Iowa’s accomplishments were plentiful, from its first NCAA tournament berth in eight years to its first back-to-back 20-win campaign since 2005-2006. The team received plenty of national, yet putting last year in the rearview mirror was a challenge.
The players had to evaluate why they slumped late. Both White and senior center Gabe Olaseni pointed at fatigue. Iowa qualified for the NIT finals in 2013, had a six-game tour of England and France last August and practice started in late September. By Feb. 22, Iowa was one game out of first place in the Big Ten and held a lead into the final minute against Wisconsin. But the Badgers — who advanced to the Final Four — rallied to beat Iowa and sent the Hawkeyes spiraling downward late in the season.
“I think it hit us at the wrong time, the fatigue factor,” Olaseni said. “Everybody wanted to win. Sometimes your legs can’t do what your brain tells you to do.”
White also earned a spot on Team USA’s college team and competed in Russia. It’s possible the off-season travel and all that basketball contributed to a lack of energy late in the season. But the next time White offers an excuse at Iowa will be the first time.
“I hate excuses,” said White, a third-team all-Big Ten forward the last two seasons. “Obviously what I went through is going to wear on you, whether it’s physical, whether it’s mental. I’ve kind of had some time to step back from the season and kind of realize maybe I didn’t have as much in the tank as I wanted to. But that doesn’t mean when I was on the floor I didn’t give everything I ever had for my team.
“You lose basketball games by what was going on the floor. There was nothing with the guys. We all love each other. We’re a family.”
Since mid-March, White has bulked up and is broader in his shoulders and chest. Olaseni and Oglesby also have put on weight, and Olaseni has worked heavily on playing power forward. That includes thousands of outside jumpers this spring alone.
It took some time, but the players now are focused on next year.
“Once workouts started, it was a new approach to a new season,” Oglesby said. “We put last season behind us and start fresh.”
“Once I got over that, I got started,” White said. “I’ve been really working on myself improving on the upcoming year. Even though we won’t have that same hype that we had last off-season, this team can make some noise. I really like the pieces we’ve got. I really like the chemistry. I like the experience we’ve got coming back. I don’t think anyone should sleep on us coming into this year.”
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