Basketball collapse runs the town

BY BEN ROSS | MAY 15, 2014 5:00 AM

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That the men’s basketball team — a squad heralded by most “experts” in the business to be one of the top units in the nation — finished closer to the bottom than the top in the Big Ten and, in some respects, didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament is reason to make the underachieving squad the story line of the year.

The men’s basketball team started hot this season. A trip to the championship game of its preseason tournament and a win over Notre Dame at home kept hoop dreams aflutter for everyone invested in the Iowa basketball program.

A loss at Iowa State in a winnable game brought everyone back to earth. A loss at Wisconsin in which Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery cost the team 4 points with two technical fouls in the second half showed everyone that Iowa’s toughest opponent is itself.

The team peaked with an 18-point win over then No. 10 Michigan at home on Feb. 8. That was the Iowa fans thought they would see. That team played the kind of basketball everyone knew it was capable of. But after every peak comes a valley.

After the win against Michigan, the Hawkeyes went on to claim victories just twice in their remaining nine games. Iowa had an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament — it was bounced by lowly Northwestern, a team it had beaten by at least 25 points in both of its previous contests during the regular season. Iowa was doomed to compete in a play-in game against Tennessee for the right to earn themselves a bid to the elusive NCAA Tournament, which Iowa hadn’t visited since 2006.

The contest against the Volunteers told the whole story of Iowa’s season in 45 minutes. Iowa enjoyed a double-digit lead for the better part of the second half, turned the ball over often, missed free throws, and let a team climb the ladder to force overtime, only to get throttled in the extra period. A loss in Dayton, Ohio, was not where this team expected to end the season. It wasn’t what experts predicted. It wasn’t what the fans wanted to see, after a year of such promise, to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.

There may have been better, or more interesting story lines surrounding the Hawkeye sporting landscape this year. Iowa football’s resurgence to relevance was a pleasant surprise for some, yes, but not totally unexpected — that program demands excellence, and that’s the standard that has been set for Iowa football. Rick Heller’s takeover of the baseball program this spring has certainly opened some eyes, but he’s fighting an uphill battle to compete for ink in this newspaper against football, wrestling, and basketball.

Nothing in an Iowa uniform had the expectations like this year’s basketball team. No other sport was able to toy with the emotions of fans like the successes and failures of the ultimately underachieving Hawkeyes. The team played with the hearts of many, and to some, let them down. Interest in the team has peaked this off-season as eyes have been glued to the Internet, digesting which high-school or transfer athletes will sign the Iowa letterhead.

Nothing has been able to control the lives of Iowa fans quite like Hawkeye basketball, and that’s why the team of recent past is the story of the year.

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