Do or die? Yeah, so what else is new?
One and done? No big deal.
The Iowa basketball team has sort of gotten used to having its back against the wall. In fact, the Hawkeyes seem to have thrived on it the past few weeks.
So, while today’s 5:30 p.m. encounter with Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament is daunting and challenging, it’s not going to feel strange or different to the Hawkeyes.
“In a lot of ways, it’s been do or die for awhile now, understanding where we’ve been after that Illinois loss,’’ sophomore Nicholas Baer said. “I think we kind of have that mindset every game now. The next game is our biggest game ... It’s been successful for us recently so hopefully we’ll maintain that.’’
You can trace this mindset to a 70-66 loss to Illinois on Feb. 18. That left the Hawkeyes just one game above .500 at 14-13 and in danger not only of missing the NCAA Tournament but any tournament at all.
They knew they couldn’t afford to lose again. So they didn’t.
“I didn't overanalyze it, didn't panic, they didn't panic,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “The key is to get those guys to continue to believe in themselves and just go out and do what they're capable of doing. That's what they did.’’
The turnaround began against the same Indiana team they will face today. A little more than two minutes into that game, McCaffery was so distraught by what he saw that he yanked his entire starting lineup en masse. Indiana held a 17-4 lead at one point. But gradually the Hawkeyes clawed their way back into the game and eventually won 96-90 in overtime.
Peter Jok, who scored 15 of his 35 points in the OT, agrees that the Hawkeyes have been in do-or-die mode ever since.
“I think we have,’’ he said. “I think we’re just clicking at the right time. We had lot of ups and downs but at the same time we tried to stay positive and stay together.’’
A surprisingly easy road win at No. 24 Maryland followed. Then a 59-57 nailbiter, also on the road, at No. 22 Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes nearly ran Penn State right out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday.
They’re now 18-13 and perhaps just a win or two away from what seemed like a far-off dream a few weeks ago, a berth in the Big Dance.
“I always had a feeling we’d be playing our best basketball in March with this younger group,’’ said Baer, who has had his two best offensive games of the season in the past two games. “We’ve just really been putting everything together both offensively and defensively. I’m just really happy with the way we’ve developed as a team.’’
The late-season rush has been a blend of more consistently stingy defense and crisp offense. The Hawkeyes have found great success by frequently changing defenses and have been especially effective with their zone. Freshman big men Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl have dominated inside and in the past three games, the Hawkeyes have made 37 of 66 3-point field goal attempts.
"Those guys are doing an outstanding job,’’ Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “Fran's such a great coach, and he finds a way to make guys better. They've got shooters. They've got the guy that they can really count on to carry them through things in Peter Jok. They've got a lot of other guys, especially the young guys that have really had an opportunity to go through the growing pains in this league now, and they're playing with a ton of confidence."
That doesn’t mean today will be easy. Indiana, which was expected to be a Big Ten title contender, is only 17-14 and seeded 10th, but it didn’t just fold up after that overtime loss in Iowa City.
It won two of its three games since then, including a one-point win over Northwestern and a victory over Ohio State on Saturday that kept the Hoosiers from having to open tournament play on Wednesday.
Crean blasted his players for a lack of maturity a few weeks ago, but has been impressed by their resiliency.
“We've had so many close games, including the one at Iowa and they may be dejected for a little bit, they may be disappointed, but they don't let discouragement kick in,’’ Crean said. “What happens is we come back and we get better. I think all of these close games have helped us. They don't really flinch, for lack of a better term.’’
Because of that, the Hawkeyes know that a better start is imperative today. They can’t afford to dig another 13-point hole and force their coach to again go to an entirely new five before they’ve even worked up a sweat.
“We need to start really strong this game,’’ freshman guard Jordan Bohannon said. “We know what’s on the line … We need to jump on them quickly and really stay after them the full 40 minutes.’’