Hawks morph into a different team

BY DANNY PAYNE | MARCH 12, 2015 5:00 AM

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When the Iowa men’s basketball team takes the court this afternoon at the United Center in Chicago, 364 days will have elapsed since the Hawkeyes lost, 67-62, to Northwestern in the first round of the 2014 Big Ten Tournament. It was Iowa’s sixth loss in seven games and the penultimate one before being bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This year, things are different. Iowa is perhaps the hottest team in the Big Ten heading into the league tournament, winning its last six games by an average of 17.5 points.

“We’re winning this year, and we weren’t winning last year, that’s the simplicity of it,” first-team All-Big Ten selection Aaron White said. “We’re just staying together right now; we’re playing for one another.”

White is correct. During Iowa’s winning streak, the Hawkeyes have certainly passed the eye test for cohesiveness. Head coach Fran McCaffery’s crew has played well in every facet of the game, most importantly, defense.

In their first 12 Big Ten games of the season, Iowa allowed an average of 62.5 points per contest, in the final six, an average of 57.5 points per game. Even more, Iowa has held five of those opponents to 10-plus points below the team’s average scoring total.

Look at different members of the Hawkeyes, and there will be different reasons. It could be Anthony Clemmons and Company’s perimeter defending; the Hawkeyes have done a good job on guards during this stretch (Iowa held first-team All-Big Ten selection Yogi Ferrell to 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting). Perhaps it’s Iowa’s rebounding ability and not allowing second-chance points.

“When it’s all said and done, you have got to rebound,” McCaffery said. “Because if you’re giving up second shots, it doesn’t matter how good your first line of defense is, because they are going to make a good percentage of those second shots.”

And then there’s the metal side of things. Although McCaffery said Tuesday he hasn’t noticed much difference in the team’s mentality this season from last season, some of his players have said otherwise.

White said he was exhausted at the end of last year and didn’t pick up a basketball for roughly two weeks following his team’s final game.

Several players have made it a point to mention the team’s chemistry this year and how this team is gelling — and again, back to the eye test, it passes with flying colors.

“It’s another opportunity for us to go showcase what we can do,” Adam Woodbury said. “… To be honest, I don’t remember last year, I kind of blocked that out. I just try to take it game-by-game, season-by-season.

“Every team is different, we have different players this year, different personalities, so it’s just a thing that we just have to go about our business and take care of what we need to do.”

And what Iowa needs to do is simple, just as White said: It needs to win. And it will win by playing defense and continuing to do what it has done the last six games.

The bottom line is this: Iowa is in a much better place than it was earlier this season and at the end of last year. The momentum is there, and it has performed like a team that can make noise in the postseason.

Now it’s time to show that in Chicago.

“We’re learning from mistakes we made earlier in the year,” White said. “We’re playing our best basketball.”

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