The Big Ten grind is wearing on the Iowa men’s basketball team and probably has been for a while.
It was bound to happen when you play an 18-game schedule with half of the games on the road.
The road proved costly to the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes on Wednesday as they lost to Penn State 79-75 at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa.
Maybe we should’ve seen this coming after Iowa barely escaped with a 75-71 victory over Big Ten cellar dweller Minnesota this past Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Penn State hasn’t played very well this season, but it has played better than Minnesota. The Nittany Lions also were playing at home where they’re a different team than on the road.
Penn State made 10 shots from 3-point range, including seven in the first half, while Iowa missed 10 free throws. Iowa also uncharacteristically had more turnovers (13) than assists (11).
It was a recipe for defeat and that’s what happened in a game in which Iowa led 8-0.
“At the start of the game, it was easy, we were up eight nothing and then after that I thought we softened a little bit,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on his Learfield post-game radio show. “But we hung in there and made a couple runs, made a run at the end.
“I think overall we’re not a team that typically turns it over more than we have assists. So we didn’t really move the ball like we would have to.”
This was the same Penn State team that missed 19 of 20 shots from 3-point range during a 73-49 loss against Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 3.
Penn State’s only hope of defeating Iowa was to shoot well from 3-point range and have the Hawkeyes struggle. Both of those things happened on Wednesday and Iowa no longer has sole possession of first place in the Big Ten because of it.
The Hawkeyes (20-6, 11-3 Big Ten) do have a week to rest and recover before facing one of the hottest teams in college basketball in the Wisconsin Badgers next Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“We’ll keep working,” McCaffery said.
That’s all McCaffery and the Iowa players can do at this point. No changes are needed. The only real solution is to try to get better by working hard.
It’s probably fair to say that Iowa is struggling a little bit right now. But that’s part of the journey, part of the challenge of surviving the Big Ten grind.
“It’s the Big Ten, every game is a big game,” said junior Peter Jok, who led Iowa with 28 points in Wednesday’s game. “You can never overlook anybody. You have to come ready to play every game.
“And tonight (Penn State) was ready for us. We’re just going to watch film, get better and move on.”
The performance of Iowa’s bench was better on Wednesday than it had been in recent games. Freshman forward Nicholas Baer scored six points in less than three minutes in the first half, while sophomore forward Dom Uhl was aggressive on both ends of the floor.
But more still is needed from the bench as Iowa hits the home stretch of its schedule.
Part of the problem with playing Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center is that it’s usually nearly half empty during games, creating a sterile environment. That was the case again on Wednesday.
Visiting teams often feed off the emotion from a hostile home crowd, but there is little of that at Penn State. Teams have to create their own emotion and that can be difficult.
The Nittany Lions also were desperate after losing 70-54 at Nebraska in their previous game this past Saturday. The loss came a week after Penn State had upset Indiana at home.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers challenged his seniors during practice leading up to the Iowa game, and they delivered. Senior center Donovan Jack scored a career-high 19 points, while senior forward Brandon Taylor finished with 18.
“I don’t want to diminish anything that Nebraska did, they played great in the second half,” Chambers said. “But that was not who we were and that was not Penn State basketball. And those seniors knew it.
“We came back in on Sunday and we went after it and those seniors went after it. They didn’t want to let that happen again. And it’s very true, you practice the way you play.”
Eleven of the Big Ten’s 14 teams would love to trade places with Iowa right now. It’s beyond mid-February and the Hawkeyes still are in first place in the conference.
They have some work to do, but that goes with the territory. Nobody ever said winning a Big Ten regular-season title was easy.
It’s a journey filled with one potential setback after another, as we saw against lowly Penn State.
But it also is a journey in which Iowa still has a chance for a fantastic finish.