No. 24 Iowa stumbles, falls 66-63 to Illinois

Iowa center Adam Woodbury dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Associated Press

IOWA CITY — The Iowa basketball team hit the reset button Monday.

After several weeks of going from one game to the next, holding short practices focused largely on preparing for the next opponent, Fran McCaffery got his team back to basics.

He put them through a workout that was longer and harder than anything they’d seen lately. It was entirely introspective and largely diagnostic. No upcoming opponent was mentioned. It was all about getting the Hawkeyes back to where they were about a month ago when they were being mentioned as a potential Final Four participant.

Did it work? We probably won’t really know until Thursday night when they take the court against Northwestern in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

“We had a lot of energy, a lot of life," sophomore guard Mike Gesell said. “We had a really good practice, which was good to see."

“I think yesterday was really big for us," sophomore center Adam Woodbury said. “I think we got it back."

Gesell said he feels as though it was the first step toward reversing the team’s recent misfortunes on the court.

“Guys are staying really positive and we know what we’re capable of doing," he said. “We know how good of a team we are. Not too long ago we were ranked 10th in the nation and we didn’t get there by accident. We still have a lot of confidence in ourselves that we’re a very good ballclub."

The Hawkeyes (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten) haven’t looked too great lately. They finished the Big Ten season with a stretch of six games in 15 days and they ended up losing five of those games. They didn’t lose any of them by more than 10 points but the trek included a pair of home defeats and their first three losses of the season to unranked teams.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said at a news conference Tuesday that it’s really difficult to pinpoint what went wrong for his team in the final weeks of the season. Some of it may have been fatigue. Some of it was sloppy execution of the halfcourt offense.

Defense definitely was an issue. After being ranked among the national leaders in field-goal percentage defense much of the season, their last six opponents combined to shoot 52 percent from the field.

“There's not one thing," McCaffery said. “It's collective. And I think the encouraging thing for us is this particular team has played excellent defense this year. And that's what our goal is, to go back and play that kind of defense again."

While McCaffery said he views the Big Ten Tournament as a part of the same season, his players said this feels like a fresh start.

“This is a brand new season now," Gesell said. “Whatever we did during the season doesn’t matter now."

McCaffery said he did sense some new excitement in the players after Monday’s workout.

“Any time you have an opportunity to play in an event of this caliber, I think that's going to make everybody pretty excited," he said. “As it relates to what happened the previous game, the previous five games, the previous 15 games, I don't think that matters."

Senior co-captain Zach McCabe said that while the reasons for the late-season collapse are fairly complex, he thinks the solution is relatively simple.

“We need to get back to having fun," he said. “I think we’ve been putting too much pressure on ourselves."