When it all came to an end at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, Fran McCaffery couldn’t bring himself to feel completely awful about Iowa’s worst basketball season in seven years.
"I wouldn’t describe it in a negative way," the Hawkeyes’ head coach told reporters, "although I think we have to admit we didn’t win as many games as we thought we would. We have to readily admit that."
A team generally picked to finish anywhere from fourth to ninth in the Big Ten ended up tied for 11th and with the No. 12 seed in the conference tournament. It tied a school record for most conference losses in a season (14).
It went 1-10 on the road and had a four-game losing streak early in the season, a three-game skid in the middle of the season and a six-game slide late in the season.
It ranked 250th in the country in defensive efficiency and allowed the second most points per game in Big Ten play of any team in the past couple of decades.
Other than perhaps Minnesota, which battled injuries and one very big suspension, no Big Ten team underachieved more radically than the Hawkeyes.
Yeah, there was plenty of negative.
But McCaffery said he has a hard time going into next season not feeling positive.
"The season did not go as we hoped, no question," he said. "The thing for me that I look at is: Are they grinding every day? Are they connected to one another? Do they care about each other? Are they accepting coaching?"
McCaffery felt his young team did all of the above.
He loved the fact that the players never quit and actually did something most of his good Iowa teams did not: win a game in the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes almost won two, taking an NCAA tournament-bound Michigan team into overtime on Thursday.
"A lot of guys developed, a lot of guys got better," McCaffery added. "They just came to work every day, and we just kept grinding as best we could. I’m really optimistic moving forward with the character we have in that locker room."
It’s easy to see why he’s optimistic. Barring unforeseen roster changes, the Hawkeyes will return 99.6 percent of their scoring for next season. The only two seniors on the team combined to score 11 points.
The sophomore class accounted for 66.8 percent of the points and the freshmen got 22.7 percent.
Then you add in Muscatine’s Joe Wieskamp, the most ballyhooed high school recruit of the McCaffery era; another solid backcourt recruit, C.J. Fredrick; and Connor McCaffery, who played in only four games while battling assorted injuries and illnesses in a lost freshman season.
Many of us expect Wieskamp to step right in and start at the small forward position, which was sort of a revolving door of under-performance this season. Connor McCaffery should be a more-than-adequate backup point guard.
It adds up to what appears, on paper, to be a very deep and skilled basketball team.
Then again, this season’s team looked very good on paper, too. Analysts and commentators constantly marveled at the fact that this team didn’t win more games than it did. There was a clear disconnect between the talent and the results.
It might just have been that this team lacked experience and senior leadership.
That excuse won’t be available next season. All those sophomores will be juniors, and there should be at least a couple of contributing seniors on the roster.
Of course, there’s always the chance that not everyone from this team will be back.
There have been rumors all season that leading scorer Tyler Cook might choose to enter the NBA draft or transfer to Missouri, where several of his buddies play.
Cook swatted down one of those ideas Friday on Twitter, stating: "I have no desire to transfer to Missouri. I have nothing but love and respect for that program and the people there, but going to Mizzou was never the plan."
But when asked following Thursday’s loss to Michigan if he would be back at Iowa next season, he was more evasive.
"Only God knows," he said.
If you believe the rumor mill, there is another Iowa player who could depart as a graduate transfer and a third who might contemplate switching to football.
McCaffery admitted that in the uncertain world of college basketball, roster turnover is inevitable.
He also indicated he might consider taking a graduate transfer from another school to add some experience to his roster, although at the moment he doesn’t have a vacant scholarship.
"It’s hard to talk about hypotheticals," he said.
He was similarly non-committal when asked about possible changes in his coaching staff, which has remained intact for his entire tenure at Iowa.
"I hope one of them gets a head coaching job," McCaffery said. "If that’s the case, then they’ll be gone."
If one does leave, maybe he should follow the football model and hire a defensive coordinator.
That’s the biggest thing that stood between this season’s team being 14-19 and possibly contending for an NCAA tournament berth.
If the Hawkeyes can just make marked improvements in that area, there really is cause for optimism.