IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s basketball players came out of their locker room and earnestly tried to describe their lackluster effort against Michigan.
These players are intelligent and honest. Perhaps low energy hurt the Hawkeyes at times in their 75-68 loss to the Wolverines on Tuesday night. But they couldn’t put a finger on the reasons why they fizzled, and they never can. Otherwise, they’d start the game like a gas grill and stay lit until the last burger was cooked.
But enthusiasm wasn’t their problem; it was execution. Unfortunately for Iowa, it’s something that will plague it for the next seven weeks.
It’s a disappointing season in Iowa City, and it’s time to admit it. I thought this team would compete for a spot in the Big Ten’s upper third after the way it finished last season. Iowa was 10-8 in Big Ten play and barely missed the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes currently sit 9-7 overall and 0-3 in league action, with two of those losses coming at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There are too many issues to correct and the personnel can’t mask all of the deficiencies.
Iowa led Michigan early and through the first 8 minutes, the score was tied 10-10. At times the offense wasn’t efficient, but the effort was there. Then the Wolverines turned up the offense and the Hawkeyes couldn’t keep up. Iowa couldn’t stop dribble-drive penetration or the kick-outs that followed. On four of five possessions, the Wolverines scored on either 3-pointers or traditional 3-point plays. The Hawkeyes countered with turnovers. An offensive foul led to another Michigan 3-pointer.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery called timeout and provided an epic tongue lashing. As huddle tirades go, it was one of his most fiery. Twice McCaffery popped a clipboard. Maybe it didn’t match quite the chair slam in East Lansing, Mich., from six years ago, but it was a top-5 whopper.
The reactions were mixed. Some of the older players had seen it before. They were attentive but not too close. Others looked glassy-eyed. The goal was for McCaffery to get his point across, but what did the players get out of it?
“I think the guys know to listen to the message instead of how he’s saying it,” said Iowa forward Tyler Cook, who scored a game-high 28 points for Iowa. “So I don’t think him yelling or screaming at us does any harm to us. We know that when he’s doing that, he’s trying to help us. He yells at us for good reason. I don’t think anybody takes it any other way than that.”
“I think everybody’s different, but in my opinion, you let Coach get his message across but you have to understand the message is different than the presentation of the message,” Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl said. “Obviously people see him yelling and stuff and they assume he’s freaking out and all that stuff. But it’s the message that he’s getting to us that we need to understand and he’s obviously just worked up because what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re not doing. But his message is clear every time we have a timeout or anytime that we’re huddled together.”
Their responses are understandable. Athletes are hard-nosed by nature and immune to most emotional outbursts, no matter how raw. But there is a danger in perpetual blowups, and it’s not just their negative appearance. It’s because people can mentally resist them. Then the message is lost.
Pemsl said that hasn’t happened. Despite its woes, this team wants to be good. The players’ goal remains an NCAA Tournament berth, no matter how far the Hawkeyes are from the first four out on Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology watch. They say there’s no tuning out McCaffery.
“That can happen, but I think we have a group of guys that are unselfish enough to understand what our end goal is,” Pemsl said. “As much as you don’t want to be yelled at, it’s something that you know is going to happen. It’s one of those things that you have to forget about the volume of the talk but just [remember] the message. It can be difficult, but we know what we need to do.”
“Obviously it’s tough being basketball players, but we’re just here to play the game that we love,” point guard Jordan Bohannon said. “Really, we just have to know these coaches have been one of the ones that have been with us since Day 1. We know they want the best for us, and we want the best for them, obviously. For us to move forward, we have to be 100 percent on what they’re trying to say and just take it with the meaning of it, of what he’s trying to say.”
But in this case, it’s fair to question the messenger, if not the message. Iowa is underperforming, and the season is in danger of a freefall. If the players decipher what McCaffery says by using their own level of translation, perhaps he needs to lower the volume so he becomes clearer. Otherwise, tuning out the coach eventually will become a major issue rather than just an unsightly nuisance.