IOWA CITY, Iowa — On the most important day of Iowa’s basketball season, one team showed up with the toughness, heart and character displayed by Chris Street.
Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes on Saturday, that team was Purdue.
The No. 3-ranked Boilermakers showcased every reason why they are the Big Ten favorite and Matt Painter’s best version in his tenure. Purdue tied a Big Ten record with 20 3-pointers in an 87-64 thrashing of Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Boilermakers led by 37 points early in the second half and could have won by 50.
But this story isn’t about Purdue, which deserves every word of recognition for a team built with the same ruggedness and efficiency as Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four squads in 2014 and 2015. No, this column is about how Iowa basketball has plunged off a cliff and has yet to hit either the water or the surface.
Iowa’s systemic defensive woes are widely known, but the Hawkeyes no longer have the personnel to mask those deficiencies. Only two years ago, Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell could stop the ball, Jarrod Uthoff could obstruct 3-point attempts and Adam Woodbury was a staunch rim protector. Those players are long gone, and their replacements don’t measure up.
This is not a critique of the current players’ inadequacies, however. That’s not fair to young adults, who already are subjected to way too much ridicule for my liking. But the current predicament shows through both attrition and roster mismanagement how Iowa went from a Big Ten contender to a doormat in such a short time.
Iowa brought in three scholarship players in the 2014 class. One transferred (point guard Trey Dickerson) and two are modest bench players in Brady Ellingson and Dom Uhl. They have combined for one start this year. Former walk-on Nicholas Baer has developed into a starter and has opened 12 games.
The Hawkeyes brought in six players in 2015. Four of them — Andrew Fleming, Christian Williams, Brandon Hutton and Dale Jones — transferred either after their first or second season. Isaiah Moss has started every game and Ahmad Wagner has opened six. Their consistency remains an issue.
The team lacks leadership, which is what happens when upperclassmen don’t stay four seasons. It lacks accountability, toughness and the appearance of effort. That’s a reflection of the coaching staff. And the longer this season goes, the worse all of those intangibles appear.
The Hawkeyes are 10-11 overall and 1-7 in Big Ten play. With 10 regular-season games remaining, the squad has yet to hit rock bottom. The players tried their best after the loss Saturday to explain what happened, how they didn’t quit and what they’re going to do about ending the recent run of futility. Frankly, there’s no end this year until the very end.
Iowa’s biggest problem is the day in which it collapsed so badly. Despite a porous record, the arena was full of fans wearing white and celebrating Street’s legacy, who died 25 years ago in a car accident. Nobody is more revered than Street, who serves as the epitome of what it means to be a Hawkeye. Every March, the Chris Street Award is given to the player who best exemplifies his spirit, enthusiasm and intensity.
Street’s teammates and former award winners were on hand to turn the event into a celebration. Former Iowa coach Tom Davis made a rare appearance and welled up with emotion as he was introduced to a standing ovation. Former assistant Gary Close also was on hand to commemorate the Iowa legend he considered like a son.
But the basketball played Saturday was not symbolic of Street. His jersey adorned a seat on the bench, but it provided no spark. Iowa’s defense was soft, its offense lacked any proficiency and the overall chemistry appeared strained. If there’s a message from coach Fran McCaffery to his squad, it’s lost in translation.
McCaffery disagreed. When asked if the team is responding to his messages, McCaffery said, “Yeah.”
“Because I’m seeing change,” he said.
Unfortunately for McCaffery and the Hawkeyes, there’s no change for the better. In each of Iowa’s last seven Big Ten games, the opponent has led by at least 17 points. Purdue ransacked Iowa for an 18-0 first-half run Saturday. Only a miracle overtime comeback at Illinois has kept Iowa from its worst league start in program history.
By mid-second half, the once-passionate Carver crowd filtered out the door, many of whom are unlikely to return this year. There’s little hope of better days ahead this season, if the past serves as prologue.
“I would tell them don’t give up on this group,” McCaffery said. “This is a good group of kids, and we’ll get it figured out.”
Iowa fans won’t give up on the Hawkeyes, but they’ll find more things to do the next two months besides watch basketball. When this season comes to a merciful conclusion, that’s when the big-picture questions will stare at the players, McCaffery and athletics director Gary Barta. Only then will we find out if this situation is a pothole or a sinkhole.