IOWA CITY — Fran McCaffery put the question to a quick and merciful death Sunday night.
When asked if he was concerned about his team not being all that fired up for tonight’s 8 p.m. meeting with South Dakota in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, he abruptly snapped, “That won’t be an issue.’’
But the fact is, motivation sometimes can be a problem for power conference programs in a tournament that amounts to a consolation prize for teams that miss out on the NCAA Tournament.
It often happens with veteran teams who have pinned their hopes on getting into the Big Dance. The NIT ends up being a letdown and it is reflected in their performance on the court.
The Iowa players, like their coach, insist there will be no letdown.
“Our motivation now is to prove to everyone and to ourselves that we belonged in the NCAA tournament …’’ freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said
“We want to make a run and see what we can do. We want to prove to everyone that we were able to make the NCAA tournament and we can play at that level.’’
The Hawkeyes (18-14) actually came closer to making the NCAA than they expected. McCaffery scheduled a practice Sunday while the tournament selection show was on — a sure sign that he didn’t think they would make it — but they actually were listed as one of the top four teams not to make it. As a result, they received one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NIT.
“That gives us a lot more motivation,’’ Pemsl said. “Obviously, it hurts to not make it when we were that close. We’re not going to underestimate anybody regardless of what seed they are or who we’re playing. We’re just going to come out and play our best game.’’
Peter Jok, the only senior who plays meaningful minutes for the Hawkeyes, also said he and his teammates have learned not to look past any opponents.
"There’s some really good teams in the NIT,'' he said. "There’s some better teams than are in the NCAA tournament, so we’re not overlooking anyone.’’
When McCaffery says motivation won’t be an issue, there is little reason to doubt him.
He has coached Iowa in the NIT twice previously and the Hawkeyes appeared to be very motivated both times. They reached the second round of the tournament in 2012 before losing a tough road game at Oregon. The next year they made it all the way to the championship game.
McCaffery rejected one reporter’s suggestion that those teams got stoked up to give a proper send-off to some popular seniors. Although some of his players indicated they’d like to send Peter Jok out a winner, the coach said he doesn’t view it that way.
“I just want this team to continue to win and play better, and I want Pete to continue to play well and have more opportunities to show what he’s capable of doing,’’ McCaffery said. “That’s kind of how I look at it.’’
You can bet that South Dakota (22-11) will be motivated. It is playing in only its second Division I postseason event in the program’s history and the other one was the 2010 CollegeInsider.com tournament.
While the NIT may feel like a step down to programs such as Iowa, Syracuse and Indiana, this is a big deal for the Coyotes.
It doesn’t hurt that their point guard, Trey Dickerson, is an Iowa cast-off. He transferred to South Dakota in 2015 when it became apparent he wasn’t going to get the desired amount of playing time in Iowa City.
Dickerson has remained close friends with Jok and told HawkeyeNation.com in an interview Monday that he’s trying to treat it like any other game. But that may be tough.
“They’re all motivated,’’ Jok said of the Coyotes. “He personally will be, too, to win here at Carver.’’