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Commentary: Iowa's NIT run a good omen for next March

BY ADAM WESLEY | APRIL 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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NEW YORK — Eric May’s step-back 3 with a minute on the clock against Maryland on Tuesday sent the Hawkeye faithful at Madison Square Garden into a state of bliss — something with which the fans should familiarize themselves if this year’s run in the NIT is any gauge.

May’s trey gave the Hawkeyes a 9-point lead and ended any chance of a Terrapin comeback. It was also consistent with Iowa’s play in the NIT, hitting key shots at key moments down the stretch to close out the game.

“Iowa was great,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. “They made plays, they made free throws, they made big shots when they had to.”

Making big shots was not a strong suit of the Black and Gold during the Big Ten season, with a repeating playlist of late-game meltdowns.

Remember, Nebraska? Minnesota? Michigan State?

But since postseason play began, the team has stepped up a gear and put together complete, impressive performances. Particularly in the last two games.

In the Hawkeyes’ double-digit wins over Virginia and Maryland, they held off numerous second-half runs by a quality opponent, away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Not only is Iowa making big shots when it needs to, it has also elevated its mental game down the stretch — the Hawkeyes gave up 0 points off turnovers in the second half against the Terrapins.

Iowa’s run to the NIT championship game has seen Fran McCaffery’s young squad finally take that next step — finishing off opponents. McCaffery saw this new completeness manifest itself in Tuesday’s game.

“The growth was evident,” he said. “They made a couple runs at us, and we were able to hold them off with various people making baskets.”

The Hawkeyes will need another complete performance in the Big Apple to win the NIT championship tonight against an athletic Baylor team. Prolific guard Pierre Jackson will thoroughly test Iowa’s Big Ten-vetted defense. But win or lose, this season has been a resounding success for Iowa fans.

They’ve watched a young team rapidly mature from losing its first three outings in the Big Ten to finishing sixth in the league with a .500 record in arguably the best conference in the nation.

They’ve seen the Hawkeyes bounce back from the disappointment from narrowly missing out on their first NCAA tourney appearance since 2006 to reach the school’s first NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden.

Few would predict the Hawkeyes will miss out on dancing next year, and with an almost intact squad returning to be bolstered by a strong class of 2014, Iowa should compete in the upper echelons of the Big Ten.

So while watching tonight’s game against Baylor, regardless of the outcome, Iowa basketball fans have plenty of reasons to get excited for next season. McCaffery said his team’s performance in the NIT has shown what they are capable of in March or even April.

“We can beat really good teams on a big stage,” he said. “The next stage is to do it in the NCAA Tournament, and we feel as though we have the personnel to do that.”


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