Basketball team ‘completely different’ compared to last year

BY IAN MARTIN | MARCH 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Three hundred and sixty-three days before the Iowa basketball team ended its regular season with a stunning win over then-No. 6 Purdue, it ended its season with a 25-point thrashing at Minnesota.

It was a disappointing end to a disappointing 2009-10 regular season, and the next week wasn’t much better. Rumors swirled around the team: Players were looking to transfer, head coach Todd Lickliter’s job was all but gone.

And while players wouldn’t admit it at the time, those who stuck around after last year’s tumultuous off-season confess that this team’s confidence is significantly better than it was at the same time last season.

“It felt like last year we were just trying not to get blown out in games,” sophomore guard Eric May said. “This year, we’re coming into games knowing that we can compete and that we should win games.”

May said he’s put last season in the past and has forgotten much of it.

Junior guard Matt Gatens was also one of six players who returned to the roster this season, and said that the end of the 2009-10 campaign had him questioning some of his teammates’ effort.

“Personally, I still was going out there and playing hard, but as a whole, it just wore on us those last few weeks,” he said. “There’s not much of that going on now.”

Any fan who saw this season’s incarnation of the team after watching a game a season ago may be able to see the difference as well. While the Hawkeyes’ record isn’t much better than last year at 11-19 — 10-22 last year — the team’s margin of defeat has been much better.

In its final two Big Ten regular-season contests last year, Iowa lost by a combined 38 points. This season, the Hawkeyes likely ended Purdue’s hopes for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They also crushed the Boilermakers’ hopes for a Big Ten regular-season title.

This victory, along with some other competitive games this season (versus Wisconsin, versus Ohio State), is likely why the Hawks feel much more confident heading into this year’s Big Ten Tournament.

“It should give us some confidence that we can beat good teams,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “[Purdue] is clearly one of the better teams … and we beat it.”

Most of the credit, of course, goes to McCaffery and the culture he’s embedded in his players.

Gatens specifically said that last season’s end-of-the-year practices weren’t nearly as intense, mainly because of the distractions brought about by swirling rumors.

Now the team can focus on its Big Ten Tournament game with Michigan State on Thursday. With no distractions, and certainly no coaching change about to happen, the Hawkeyes can try to get back to the sole purpose of a team: trying to win games.

May, who has been the subject of unsubstantiated transfer rumors after a rough stretch of play this year, played down all of that after the Purdue game.

Especially because, he said, 2010-11 was just more fun than its predecessor.

“[Last season] was a different mindset. It wasn’t as competitive. There was a lot of things going on off the court,” May said. “This year was completely different.”

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