By Pat Harty
Given the circumstances with Fran McCaffery in his eighth season as head coach, and with four starters returning from last season, I won’t even try to spin the Iowa men's basketball team's 84-78 loss to Iowa State on Thursday at Hilton Coliseum as a moral victory.
I saw some hope with Iowa’s performance in a hostile environment, but fans expect more than just hope from this team.
The Iowa program should be above having moral victories, especially against an opponent that is in a rebuilding phase, as is the case with Iowa State under third-year head coach Steve Prohm.
The Cyclones only have one returning starter from last season, which is three fewer than Iowa has from a team that barely missed making the NCAA Tournament last season. But the team with more experience failed to respond down the stretch, which is becoming a disturbing pattern.
"I think we did play better," said Iowa junior forward Nicholas Baer. "This was one of the better games we’ve played, but when you lose you never feel that way. Especially to an in-state rival. A six point loss is still a loss either way. We’re looking for real wins and not moral wins unfortunately. There were definitely some bright spots tonight, we’ve just got to try and put it together for a whole game."
Sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon scored 19 points and showed flashes from last season when he made the Big All-Freshmen team.
Freshman forward Jack Nunge also seized the moment by scoring 17 points, including a basket that trimmed the deficit to 79-76 in the closing seconds.
But sophomore forward Tyler Cook, sophomore guard Isaiah Moss and freshman center Luka Garza all failed to deliver on a night when Iowa needed at least one of them to step up and meet the challenge.
The 6-foot-9 Cook was held to just two points and seemed out of sync on offense. He often held on to the ball too long and that caused the offense to become stagnant.
Iowa committed 18 turnoves for the third consecutive game, and that can be attributed largely to Cook's struggles and to the instability at point guard.
The Hawkeyes also missed seven of eight free throw attempts, which is inexcuseable.
Iowa State, on the other hand, has relied on its guards to lead the way this season and that was the case again on Thursday. Heralded freshman guard Lindell Wigginton scored 24 points, while point guard Nick Weiler-Babb stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, nine assists and six rebounds.
Prohm's decision to make Weiler-Babb his point guard after the team struggled in the first two games is now paying huge dividends.
Iowa State has won six games in a row and is gaining confidence with each victory, while 4-6 Iowa still is searching for an identity on offense and playing with no consistency on either end of the floor.
Thursday’s game marked the 30th anniversary of what is now known as the Lafester Rhodes game. The Cyclone forward shredded Iowa for 54 points during an epic 102-100 victory in 1987 in Ames.
Nobody came close to doing anything like that on Thursday, but the game still had its own drama, momentum shifts and lead changes, including 12 in the first half.
The fact that Iowa led 41-36 at halftime would’ve been impressive under any circumstance. But to have done without Cook scoring a single point was cause for optimism heading into the second half because you figured Cook would contribute at some point.
Bohannon scored 11 points in the first half on three 3-pointers and a lay-up.
Iowa made seven treys in the first half, including two by sophomore guard Maishe Dailey, whose role continues to expand.
Iowa controlled the tempo throughout the first half and used its length to cause problems for the Cyclones on their perimeter shots.
With Iowa hot from the perimeter and with Bohannon leading the way, as he often did last season, the game was there for the taking heading into the second half.
The chance to win in Ames for the first time since 2003 and to pull even record-wise was within Iowa’s reach, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Iowa State was clinging to a 63-61 lead when Wigginton made a 3-point basket with 7 minutes, 57 seconds left to play. Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl answered with a basket, but the Cyclones responded with back-to-back 3-pointers to expand the lead to 72-63 with just over 6 minutes remaining.
Iowa State guard Donovan Jackson made two free throws to give the Cyclones a 10-point lead at 76-66, but then Iowa rallied with a 10-3 scoring run to pull with 79-76 in the final minute.
But it was too little and too late for an Iowa team that has now lost four games in a row, four nonconference games and its first two Big Ten games.
You figured Iowa would struggle some on offense this season without All-Big Ten shooting guard Peter Jok, who led the conference in scoring as a senior last season. But not to this extent.
There still is two-thirds of the regular season remaining, but Iowa’s margin for error in conference play is shrinking with each loss. The players and coaches have to figures things out in a hurry because the chance of making the NCAA Tournament after failing to do so last season is fading fast.