Spirit goes AWOL for men’s basketball team

BY SCOTT MILLER | MARCH 13, 2009 7:30 AM

INDIANAPOLIS — I’m very conscious of being too critical of student-athletes.

After all, they’re people just like me who go to class and are on campus to get education and have fun. They just so happen to wear a jersey a couple of days a week.

After Iowa’s embarrassing 73-45 loss to Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, I tried my best to take a step back and look at the big picture.

I couldn’t do it.

I’ve watched a lot of basketball in my life — both good and bad — and I can honestly say Thursday’s performance was one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

Forget the inexcusable errors — junior Devan Bawinkel’s grade-school-esque traveling violation midway through the second half, sophomore Jake Kelly’s best rendition of street basketball, or the way the Hawkeyes shot the from the floor — it was just a poorly played contest in every sense of the word.

It’s one thing to play badly, it’s quite another thing to stop competing. And that’s what the Hawkeyes did. All year, head coach Todd Lickliter rightfully praised his team for giving its all, even when it lost. Lickliter took pride in that fact maybe more than anything. He can usually stomach a loss as long as his team competes.

And for most of the year, Iowa did just that. It showed incredible toughness fighting through injuries, personal tragedies, close losses, and everything else. But that same competitiveness wasn’t there against Michigan.

When Wolverine junior DeShawn Sims scored the team’s first 14 points, there was little fight from the young Hawkeyes. When the shots weren’t dropping in the first half, the players seemed to pout more than try to find a solution. When Michigan’s Manny Harris took over the second half, Iowa stood by and watched the super sophomore add to his highlight reel for NBA scouts.

“All year long, it seems like we [have] responded and been able to fight back,” Iowa freshman Matt Gatens said. “But [Thursday], we didn’t. … I don’t know why … but we didn’t, and we’ll have to live with it.”

With the Hawkeyes down 40-19 at halftime, I thought it couldn’t get much worse in the second half. Certainly, they wouldn’t shoot the same poor percentage from the field. Certainly, they would at least play with nothing to lose. But, instead, Lickliter’s squad shelled up and let a 21-point deficit balloon to 28 by game’s end.

All of a sudden, it went from being a poor performance to a pitiful performance — for the entire world (or at least that section that watches Big Ten hoops) to see on ESPN2. It got so bad in the second half that senior J.R. Angle was on the floor.

Another telling moment came after the game in the press room. When Kelly and Tate were talking at the podium, Lickliter’s eyes and mind wandered. He looked distressed and disappointed — like a father after his son does something completely inexplicable. A few minutes later, a local reporter started to ask the second-year head coach how he felt about something, but Lickliter quickly interrupted the reporter and only said “sick.”

Yes, it was that bad.

It was possibly the worst way to end year two of Lickliter’s system in Iowa City. Besides Thursday’s performance, this season was a year that gave Hawkeye fans hope for the future. Lickliter built his team around a competitive group of young, talented players who love to fight and play hard. This was a bunch that would certainly win more games in the future.

While Thursday seemingly erased all that, I was given some reason to be hopeful after walking out of Iowa’s locker room.

“What can you do now?” Jarryd Cole asked me. “You have to look forward to the future. … It’s got to hold success. There’s nowhere to go but up. We’re going to have to climb. We’re going to have to fight, and claw again, and hopefully maintain it for next season.”

The fight’s not gone. It just wasn’t there on Thursday.

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