IOWA CITY — Fran McCaffery feels his basketball team has been playing hard this season. He said the Hawkeyes’ ongoing struggles and their 1-6 record in the Big Ten haven’t come from a lack of effort.
His players don’t necessarily agree with him.
But, in any case, that shouldn’t be an issue today.
The Hawkeyes will be playing the No. 3-ranked team in the country in front of their first sellout crowd of the season in an atmosphere that figures to ooze with emotion over the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the death of Chris Street.
If they aren’t fired up when they step onto the court to face first-place Purdue at 11 a.m. in Carver-Hawkeye Arena then they probably never will be.
"To me, there's only one way to play regardless of what else is going on," McCaffery said. "You play one way. You play as hard as you possibly can for as long as you can, and you do that with an intellectual approach to the game as well. So it's not just physical, it's physical and mental because anything short of that, you're going to get beat by a team of that caliber."
McCaffery insisted, however, that "I think the kids are playing hard."
Sophomore forward Tyler Cook sees it differently.
"I just think collectively as a unit we haven’t played hard enough consistently to beat good teams," he said. "I don’t think it’s very complicated."
But he does believe today will be different.
"We all know it’s a special game, and I think that will bring out the best in us as well as bring out more energy in the building," he said.
Even without the big crowd and the Street festivities, Cook thinks the Hawkeyes (10-10 overall) should be motivated by the sight of a Purdue team that has not lost a game in nearly two months.
The Boilermakers (18-2 overall, 7-0 Big Ten) are ranked No. 3 in the latest Associated Press poll and are No. 2 in the nation in the KenPom power rankings.
They lead the country in scoring margin, winning games by an average of 22.6 points per game.
Cook describes Purdue center Isaac Haas as "the biggest human being I’ve ever seen," but the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Haas is neither the tallest player on the Purdue roster nor the best.
Vincent Edwards is among the most versatile forwards in the country and a probable NBA draft choice. Dakota Mathias is a reliable shooting guard who may be the best defensive player in the Big Ten. Point guard P.J. Thompson is another exceptional defender who averages less than one turnover per game.
All of those players are seniors. And the team’s leading scorer actually is sophomore guard Carsen Edwards.
"They play together," McCaffery said. "They make the extra pass. They share it on the break. When Haas is in the game, they throw it in to him. They go to him. They run good stuff, and they have counters to it, which makes it really hard to guard …
"The thing you always say about a team like that is you've got to beat them. They're not going to come in here and turn it over. They're not going to come in and take bad shots. That's why they're ranked third."
The Boilermakers may be a bit motivated today, too. They haven’t won in Iowa City since 2011. It’s one of only two Big Ten venues in which those seniors have never experienced victory.
Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said the Hawkeyes just need to "stop over-thinking things" in order to silence their critics and make something out of this season.
"Honestly, it’s starting to piss me off a little bit," Bohannon said. "It’s getting to the point where it’s just like, OK, outside people don’t need to tell us anymore. We know what the heck’s going on. We know we’re losing. We know we have a lot of talent. We know we haven’t provided the high expectations like we were supposed to.
"At end of the day, we just need to keep working. It’s going to take the entire team to get this turned around, and I still think we’re capable of doing that."