IOWA CITY, Iowa - Wednesday night's overtime loss to Tennessee capped off a frustrating final month of the season for Iowa and its fans. The first-round NCAA defeat represented the Hawkeyes' seventh in eight games.
Most everyone connected to the Iowa program is searching for answers, an exercise likely to continue throughout the offseason. It's a puzzling end to a campaign that saw the Hawkeyes ranked 10th nationally in late January.
Unfortunately, the conclusion blurs, and for many folks, masks the tremendous strides made by this program during the last four years. In a society increasingly overcome with a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality, we miss the big picture.
Iowa basketball resided in a world of insignificance when Coach Fran McCaffery took over the program in 2010. His predecessor, Todd Lickliter, destroyed a once-proud program during a three-year reign of futility. His final season saw the Hawkeyes post a 10-21 mark (4-14 Big Ten) with the threat of player mutiny after athletes had continued to exit Iowa City regularly during his tenure.
Give athletics director Gary Barta credit for realizing his mistake in hiring Lickliter and showing him the door. Fewer and fewer people were interested in Iowa basketball as evidenced by plummeting attendance numbers. According to school, an average of 15,276 fans watched Iowa's 33 games this season (home, away, neutral), thesecond highest average in program history.
It could be easily argued that McCaffery walked into the worst position of any Iowa head coach since Lute Olson did in 1974-75. He's revived a program and returned fans to the stands while facing an uphill battle in recruiting. It shouldn't be taken for granted.
McCaffery became the victim of his own success in the last month. With the Hawkeyes' continued rise each season under his guidance, including last year's journey to the NIT championship, the reengaged followers expected a deep run this March. Failing to reach those forecasts, elicited criticism surfaced on social media, message boards and talk radio.
Nobody enjoyed Iowa's finish, least of all the coaching staff and players who worked tirelessly to reach the top of the mountain. That so many folks care that they fell short serves as a testament to how far the Hawkeyes have come in four years.
McCaffery, with the help of his assistants and the players, has put Iowa on solid ground. This month, he landed a much-sought after junior college point guard, Trey Dickerson, as well as his first 2015 pledge in Brandon Hutton from Chicago, a city Iowa has struggled to recruit.
As hard as it was to return the Hawkeyes to respectability, their next step could prove equally as difficult. To push their way into the Top Four of the Big Ten on a consistent basis, they have to dislodge another school ahead of them. Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State are pretty well established, to say the least. Nebraska, Illinois and Northwestern appear to be on the rise, and Maryland is coming into the league with a rich history and fertile recruiting ground.
Iowa must build on the momentum generated from this season despite it not reaching the highest heights. Dickerson and Hutton represent a start to what needs to be continued success in prospecting. Three open scholarships remain to be filled through the 2015 class (one available in '14) and how they become occupied could have a big bearing on the future.
It might seem obvious, but it sometimes gets lost in analyzing strategy, that the best programs continually bring in and develop top talent. That's how they sustain success.
Iowa will miss outgoing seniors Roy Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe. Still, it welcomes back two-year starters Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell and Aaron White. Key contributors Jarrod Uthoff, Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby also return along with freshman Peter Jok, who ended the season on a high note with 10 points against Tennessee.
Junior-to-be Anthony Clemmons, who started 13 games during his first year on campus before regressing this season, has ability to bounce back. Dickerson, along with incoming freshmen Brady Ellingson and Dominique Uhl, all possess potential for immediate contributions. Kyle Meyer would be in his third year with the program.
Marble's star power will be tough to absorb but it's not irreplaceable. It's a team game. The aforementioned talent must mesh to find ways to win games.
The final outcome is unlikely to improve, however, if the Hawkeyes fail to address two specific areas - half-court defense and outside shooting. Opponents know that slowing them down increases their chances of winning. They must counter by becoming a more complete team.
The end of this season will leave a bad taste in the mouths of Iowa fans. It should motivate the players and coaches.
The Hawkeyes are back. Now we get to see how far they can go.