DI Story of the Year: Men's basketball NIT run

BY TORK MASON | MAY 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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In the fall of 2011, Iowa fan message boards began circulating the catch phrase, “We’re back.” It was sparked by the commitments of this season’s freshman class and the promise of a return to the NCAA Tournament.

That berth in the Big Dance didn’t materialize this season, but the Iowa men’s basketball team got one step closer to accomplishing that goal. They stormed through the second half of the Big Ten season and NIT and reached the NIT championship game in Madison Square Garden.

Head coach Fran McCaffery said the obvious goal for any team is getting into the field of 68, but he felt the team could benefit equally from making a deep run in the NIT.

“I’m going to argue that there’s very little difference between the teams that you’re playing [in the NCAA tournament and NIT],” McCaffery said in a press conference before the NIT championship game on March 29. “There just is. So if you make a long run in this tournament, we could easily have made a long run in [the NCAA Tournament].”

Junior Devyn Marble spearheaded Iowa’s 11-4 charge to finish the season and led the team over that stretch with 18.1 points per game — including eight games in which he dropped at least 20 points. Marble said he was simply looking for any way he could find to push the team forward.

“I just wanted to win,” he said. “So I was trying to make winning plays for the team, and it just happened to come [in the form of] big scoring nights. But I was also rebounding, getting assists, getting steals; I was just doing everything I could to get us a championship. Unfortunately, we fell short to Baylor, but it was another steppingstone in the right direction.”

The Hawkeyes struggled to win away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena for most of the season but were forced to get past that obstacle in order to reach the NIT finals. Marble said the experience of needing to win five-consecutive games was a valuable one, and getting a pair of those victories away from home was important. Iowa ended Virginia’s 19-game home winning streak before knocking off Maryland in the NIT semifinals in New York.

Improved team defense was a major factor in the team’s success in 2012-13, and senior Eric May said locking down opposing offenses was a point of emphasis in the offseason.

“We weren’t stupid,” May said. “We knew what our problem was last year, and that was defense. We could score, but we couldn’t get stops when we needed to. And it’s really good to see, when you put a lot of emphasis on [defense] in the offseason — which is not a glamorous thing to work on — and guys buy into it.”

The Hawkeyes’ 25-13 season marked the program’s highest win total since 2005-06, as well as the end to May’s career in Black and Gold. May and his teammates won just 10 games in his freshman season, and he was the program’s last remaining player on this year’s roster from former head coach Todd Lickliter’s tenure.

The Dubuque native said he was glad to be a part of moving the program forward, noting that the improvement isn’t confined to the win-loss column.

“Just the overall energy is the biggest difference [between his freshman and senior years] — from within the program and outside it,” May said. “There’s a lot of good talk about this program, and it’s come with a lot of work. But once you get to that point, you’ve got to keep pushing.”

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