DAYTON, Ohio — If most Iowa basketball fans had been told before the season began that their team would earn its first invitation to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, they would have been very happy.
Had you told them that the Hawkeyes would lead the Big Ten in scoring all season, that Devyn Marble would develop into a first-team All-Big Ten player, that the bench would be so strong that it would outscore the starters on some nights and that almost every home game would be sold out, they would have been ecstatic.
As it is, you get the feeling there are Iowa fans everywhere who are crushed, bitterly disappointed and feeling unfulfilled by the fact that the Hawkeyes’ season ended Wednesday night in a 78-65 overtime loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four at Dayton Arena.
The Hawkeyes didn’t make a giant leap forward in the fourth season under Fran McCaffery. But they did make progress.
After the moribund Todd Lickliter years and back-to-back NIT appearances, a spot in the NCAA Tournament should be viewed as a forward step.
Fans who expected a quantum one-year leap from the NIT to the Final Four probably weren’t being realistic. It’s understandable why they began to hope for that as the season progressed. The Hawkeyes built up expectations with the way they performed in the early and middle stages of the season.
But in retrospect, it may not have been a case of them underachieving at the end of the season so much as they overachieved in the beginning.
What happened? Why did it all unravel in the past month?
I’m not sure the Iowa players and coaches even have a firm grasp on that. But it looked as though a team that was super-hungry and highly motivated early in the season simply ran out of steam. It hit the proverbial wall both mentally and physically. And as the losses mounted, the confidence of December and January also seeped away.
That’s strictly conjecture, of course. But there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to back it up.
Various players late in the season spoke of how long the season seemed to be. Marble talked about a “collective fatigue" that seemed to have settled in.
A team that went most of the season without losing back-to-back games was defeated in seven of its last eight outings. After going most of the season without losing to an unranked team, the Hawkeyes lost to five of them in the last month.
There was an overall lack of defensive energy and intensity at the end. Iowa’s first 25 opponents combined to shoot under 40 percent from the field. The last eight shot over 50 percent.
The offense suffered, too. Iowa’s three lowest point totals of the season came in the last three games.
You didn’t hear McCaffery or his players talk about the wear and tear of the season much. This isn’t a program of excuse-makers or finger-pointers.
But it’s easy to see how this happened.
The Hawkeyes took a trip to England in August that was almost an extension of their preseason practice. After being home for only a few weeks, they jumped into preseason workouts a few weeks earlier than ever before.
They were a driven team early in the season and in early February they were 18-5. A top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament seemed plausible and a Big Ten title was possible.
Then adversity hit and the weight of a long season jumped on their backs.
They traveled to Indiana for a midweek game only to have the game postponed because of safety concerns inside the Assembly Hall.
Then there was an especially tough loss at home to Wisconsin. One of the team’s embattled leaders, Zach McCabe, lashed out at fans on Twitter following the game and McCaffery banned his players from social media for the remainder of the season.
With questions arising about whether the team had the full support of its fans, things really began to crumble. The Hawkeyes played perhaps their two worst games of the season in road losses to Minnesota and Indiana, giving up 90-plus points in both games.
“You start the year and everyone’s got you ranked and you’re playing well and you’re in the top 10,’’ White said. “Then we hit a skid and now everyone’s jumping off the bandwagon. Everyone’s wondering what happened.’’
They managed to beat a sub-par Purdue team at home but then another tough loss to Michigan State was followed by a stunning home loss to Illinois in the regular-season finale and an even more stunning loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
For what it’s worth, both Illinois coach John Groce and Northwestern coach Chris Collins said those were the best games their teams played all season.
The Hawkeyes still got into the NCAA Tournament but as a No. 11 seed, they were placed in the First Four in Dayton and forced to play one game to even reach the round of 64. They came out with renewed energy against Tennessee on Wednesday, but couldn’t sustain it. They led for almost 37 minutes, then went to overtime and looked more deflated than ever in those final, painful five minutes, getting outscored 14-1.
Inevitably, there are going to be many — some who claim to be Iowa backers — who will say this team gave up. That didn’t happen. It just ran out of steam.
“We could care less what anybody else thinks," center Adam Woodbury said after Wednesday’s loss. “We’re a team. We’ve got a family right here and we’re going to get better."
“No matter what other people are saying, we never hung our heads," White added. “We came to work every day. We grew together not only as a basketball team but as a family. It’s tough to go out this way, but I wouldn’t want go through it with any other guys."