Last season the Iowa Hawkeyes lost out on a bid to the NCAA Tournament partly because they struggled to finish off tough opponents late in the game.
This season they haven’t had to.
The Hawkeyes face their toughest opponent to date, Xavier, in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis holiday tournament in the Bahamas. Ranked 23rd in the latest AP poll, the Hawks are on the cusp of establishing themselves as a season-long contender in the Big 10 and the NCAA. A win over Xavier and a good showing in the tournament should propel Iowa to a solid top-20 ranking for the foreseeable future. A win will make a statement that the Hawkeyes are ready to take the next step, that they’ve learned from last season’s mistakes and built upon its successes. But a first-round loss to Xavier will allow the critics to point to Iowa’s cupcake schedule as proof that Iowa still can’t win the big ones. It will be same old, same old. Iowa can’t shoot from outside. They can’t step up in crunch time. They can’t finish.
And they can’t compete with the big boys.
Part of Iowa’s strength may ultimately prove to be its weakness as well. When Josh Oglesby returns from injury, coach Fran McCaffery is expected to use up to 11 players on a regular basis. That keeps players fresh and suits an up-tempo style of play, but it also fosters inconsistency. It’s very difficult to get five players playing well at once, let alone 11. It’s harder to get into a rhythm on offense playing 5-6 minutes at a time. Some players take longer than others to find their shooting strokes. It’s hard to gain confidence sitting on the bench. Despite McCaffery’s assertions about his players, even professional athletes struggle with the mental aspects of the game when they aren’t performing well. And if you’re best players are rotated out during crunch time or only playing part-time, it’s hard to develop the go-to players needed to finish close games.
Time will tell whether Devyn Marble and Aaron White can elevate their games to a high level, or if first-year players Peter Jok and Jarrod Uthoff can become consistent shooters.
The Hawkeyes’ first real test begins this week.