IOWA CITY, Iowa — A long, disappointing season almost has reached its conclusion for the Iowa men’s basketball program, and there are signs it has worn down the players and coaches.
Coach Fran McCaffery was testy in a question-and-answer sequence about his job status. Forward Cordell Pemsl appeared almost melancholy when asked about this season’s frustrations. These are expected emotions when a team is 12-18 overall and 3-14 in Big Ten action entering the home finale Sunday against Northwestern (6:30 p.m. CT, BTN).
A loss Sunday puts Iowa in last place in Big Ten play for the first time since 1994 and only the second time since 1939. It’s been 54 years since the Hawkeyes finished with only three league victories. Of course, Iowa could roll the equally disappointing Wildcats (15-15, 6-11) and not quite find its way into those rotten ledgers.
But that would provide a light salve on a blister of a season. Iowa lost one starter from last year’s squad, Peter Jok, but a talented core remained. Then there were three touted summer additions with 10 summer practices and a European trip. Optimism abounded for a team one win from the NCAA Tournament last year.
“I really like this team,” McCaffery said at Big Ten Media Days. “I say that all the time. But I really mean it. It’s the deepest team we’ve ever had.”
It didn’t take long for the problems to arise. By the end of November, Iowa’s defense was a mess. It was magnified in early season road losses to Virginia Tech and Indiana. By traditional Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes were reeling.
A few home wins gave the players hope they could turn around the season. Instead, a 20-point rally for victory at Illinois was followed by a road loss at Rutgers. Home wins against Minnesota and Wisconsin quickly led into double-digit road defeats.
“I think that might be the most frustrating part,” Pemsl said. “We showed glimpses of what we can be and what I feel like we should have been. Then we revert back to our old habits. That’s something that’s been difficult for us to figure out, but at the end of the day we should go out there and play. We have each other’s backs and that’s about all that we can have right now.”
McCaffery has had a nice rise after digging out from Todd Lickliter’s crater in 2010. It took time to rebuild the program, but from 2013 through 2017, Iowa was 52-36 in Big Ten play, qualified for three NCAA Tournaments and barely missed two others. This year was an unpredictable flop, especially because it appeared more likely than not the Hawkeyes would qualify for another NCAA Tournament.
Many Iowa fans have questioned McCaffery’s job status, especially during this season. Much of that rhetoric evaporated when Land of 10 reported McCaffery signed a contract extension in November that sent his buyout soaring to $10.2 million after this season.
McCaffery bristled at a line of questioning about his job security, saying his body of work gave him no pause about his status. Then pressed, McCaffery said, “You shouldn’t even be bringing it up, to be honest with you or anybody else.”
Then after a response about Iowa sitting in last place, McCaffery said, “I know. I know. Like I said, body of work. There is a lot of things to be evaluated. Maybe you should look at that.”
McCaffery’s body of work deserves inspection. This is only his second losing season in eight years at Iowa. Twice the Hawkeyes were ranked in the top 10. Both times they had late-season free falls. Iowa won two NCAA Tournament games — one on a buzzer-beater in overtime, the other in a 32-point pasting in a 7-10 game. The Hawkeyes also lost both of their next-round games by 19-point margins.
Iowa was one of only three Big Ten teams to finish at least 9-9 from 2013 through 2017 in league action. But Wisconsin had four trips to the Sweet Sixteen and Michigan State had three over that time frame. The Hawkeyes never made it past the first weekend.
Overall, McCaffery has earned the right to have a bad season. But that shouldn’t absolve him from scrutiny, either. It just means this was his mulligan year. If Iowa can’t reach the postseason next year, that body of work looks much less impressive than it did in 2016.