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Each game a season as Iowa searches for winning formula

BY CHARLIE KAUTZ | MARCH 12, 2009 7:27 AM

The Iowa men’s basketball team was like a wet matchbook during Big Ten play this season.

For every rare game with just enough spark to ignite a fire under the Hawkeyes, there were several that saw Iowa flare out, a team overcome by outstanding circumstances — fatigue, inexperience, adversity, and injuries.

With nine losses by eight points or fewer in conference play, Iowa knows single possessions can determine which column, win or loss, gains weight. In today’s opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, they are likely to decide whether the Hawkeyes keep their long-shot championship dreams — and their season — burning for one more day.

Iowa showed crunch-time capabilities during an eight-point double overtime win against Penn State in its regular-season finale March 7. But as the league’s No. 10 seed in Indianapolis this week, the challenge is magnified in the reality of a postseason time crunch.

Four games. Four days. One possession at a time.

From tip-off today at 1:30 p.m., it’s win late or head back west for a long off-season.

“We’ve just got to have that killer instinct,” sophomore guard Jake Kelly said. “We get up five, 10 points with several minutes remaining and we just don’t put teams away. We let teams kind of come back into it and get those little plays, block-outs and stuff. “If we just get that and get it done at the end, we’ll be fine.”

Despite a regular-season home split between Michigan and Iowa, the Hawkeyes find themselves the lower seed for a number of reasons, none more influential than the team’s inability to win close games throughout conference play. Facing what is effectively a one-game season, head coach Todd Lickliter’s message to his team was clear this week — ignore past failures and look forward.

“You have to look at it from that standpoint and say a few possessions here and there and maybe we wouldn’t be in 10th,” Lickliter said. “At the same time, you have to realize that is where we are, we did not win those games, and we will have to play very well if we have any chance to be successful.”

Perhaps Iowa takes as much from the Nittany Lions’ loss as it does from the one-game winning streak it established last weekend. Looking to firm up a bubbling NCAA Tournament résumé, Penn State got beaten by what appears to be, on paper, the league’s second-worst team.

No. 2 seed Illinois awaits the winner of Iowa-Michigan, but Lickliter’s approach is that the rest of the tournament bracket is invisible before the potential contest with the Fighting Illini on Friday. There will be no oversight of the Wolverines in the Hawkeye locker room.

“If you have any hope of playing on Friday, then Thursday better get your full attention,” Lickliter said.

While the two previous meetings between Iowa and Michigan were determined by double digits, the second game’s overtime period and the teams’ overall statistical similarities suggest today’s outcome will be tight. The Wolverines and Hawkeyes rank 1-2 in Big Ten free-throw percentage leading into a game that could be won at the charity stripe in the closing minutes.

“I’m just trying to grind these games out, get all wins, and get a tournament bid,” senior Cyrus Tate said.


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