Archive for March, 2013
Fran McCaffery understands the potential that lives within Anthony Clemmons. That's among the reasons McCaffery - introduced three years ago today as Iowa's new basketball coach - doesn't hesitate to get into Clemmons' grill when the freshman guard plays like a freshman. "He's one of those guys whose concentration will waver occasionally, and that's why of all the players on the team, I'm usually on him the hardest,'' McCaffery said today. "I'm on him because he got everything you need in terms of ability. He can shoot, he can drive, he can make plays.'' And... "You'll see him fiddling with the ball once in a while and you'll see him stand up on defense once in a while. That's why I am on him harder than anybody else on this team.'' He also realizes that Clemmons occasionally needs a little push to re-gain his focus. McCaffery, with no regard for decibel level, begged Clemmons to "Toughen Up'' after putting him on the bench in Iowa's NIT opener against Indiana State. "He can take it. He's a tough kid, an intelligent person, so he gets it,'' McCaffery said. "I'm not on him because I like to be on him. I'm on him because he needs me to be on him and he knows that.'' Clemmons doesn't disagree. Only five Hawkeyes have averaged more than the 16.8 minutes per game Clemmons has seen during his rookie season, minutes the freshman concedes he hasn't always made the most of. "When he gets on me, it's for a reason and I don't take it personally,'' Clemmons said. "Usually, it's just time for me to step it up a bit.'' Clemmons did just that in the second half of Wednesday's win at Virginia as Mike Gesell sat because of his ongoing foot injury. McCaffery praised Clemmons' play in the second half and praised the resiliant nature of his personality. "Normally a lot of times once kids go south, that's it, but he has the ability to come back and make play,'' McCaffery said. "Even when he had that terrible turnover the other night, he comes back and makes one of the greatest blocks in the game, a huge momentum play in that game.'' That's one reason McCaffery will never let Clemmons give any less than he is capable of giving as he contributes to the Hawkeye effort. That's also one reason McCaffery suspects he may find himself in front of Clemmons again in the future, encouraging him to get it together. "I might rip him and pull him out, but I'm going to put him back in and give him another shot,'' McCaffery said. After all, that is the only way at this stage in his career that Clemmons will have a chance to reach his full potential. "It's not just about now. It's about the future,'' Clemmons said. "I get that, and that's why we all love coach. He wants us to give our best, but he wants that to happen for us, because he knows what we're capable of and because we should want the same thing.''
In the days leading up to Iowa's 75-64 win tonight over Virginia in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament, the Hawkeyes heard a lot about the Cavaliers' defense. They heard about how coach Tony Bennett's team ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense. They heard about the Cavaliers ranked in the top 16 in the country in six defensive categories. And, they heard about how Virginia had held 26 of its first 34 opponents under 60 points. Then, the Hawkeyes embraced the challenge. Iowa earned its first-ever spot in the NIT semifinals by beating the Cavaliers at their own game. The Hawkeyes introduced Virginia to the type of defense that has helped Big Ten teams survive and thrive in postseason play this year. "Our defense is making a difference and it has since the postseason started,'' center Adam Woodbury said in a postgame radio interview. "We're not making things easy on people.'' All-Atlantic Coast Conference guard Joe Harris discovered that quickly, chased most of the night by Eric May. The only scholarship senior on the Iowa roster is doing whatever he can to extend his career as long as he can and tonight, that meant helping hold Harris to 11 points and 4-of-11 shooting. "I couldn't leave Eric on him all night - we mixed it up a bit to give him some different looks - but he was there most of the time and I feel like Eric wore him down,'' coach Fran McCaffery said. "Harris is a power pack, real tough to guard, but Eric, (Aaron) White, Devyn (Marble) and Josh (Oglesby) all did a good job on him.'' McCaffery praised the play of Iowa's interior defense as well. "I thought defensively (Adam) Woodbury was phenomenal all game,'' McCaffery said. "We were moving our bigs in and rotating our smaller bigs in, even when (Gabe) Olaseni was in there. He didn't play great, but he was effective defensively. (Mike) Tobey got away from us a litlte bit, but overall it was good.'' The defensive effort which limited the Cavaliers to 19-of-50 shooting from the field, forced 16 turnovers and out-rebounded Virginia 34-26 helped lead Iowa to line late. The Hawkeyes converted there as well, hitting each of their 14 attempts over the final 3 minutes, 9 seconds to join North Carolina and North Carolina State as the only teams this season to top 70 points against the Cavaliers. "We played the way we needed to play and we got it done,'' Woodbury said.
In the midst of taking its postseason run at least one step further than it did a year ago, the Iowa basketball program finds itself in the midst of a growth spurt. Frustrated time after time when late-game leads evaporated during the Big Ten season, the Hawkeyes have found a way to close opponents in their two early-round victories in the National Invitation Tournament. They're hitting important free throws, burying big baskets and making strong stands defensively when the game is on the line. It's the way top teams finish, the way Iowa needed to finish against its conference foes if it wanted to reach the NCAA tourney this season. The late-game struggles which relegated Iowa to the NIT for the second straight year have seemingly disappeared in front of two energized crowds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this week. Iowa withstood late pushes from Indiana State and Stony Brook - hardly Indiana or Michigan State - but the ability to execute down the stretch is a trait that this Hawkeye team has been waiting to develop. It's the next step and a growth spurt that has come at an important time for Iowa. "What we're doing now is setting the stage what we can do next year,'' Iowa guard Devyn Marble said. "We're laying the foundation and we're getting better as we do that. This team has never stopped working to get better.'' That wasn't lost on Steve Pikiell, whose 25-win team saw its season end tonight when nine of the 10 players Iowa put on the floor scored as the Hawkeyes handled the America East Conference regular-season champs 75-63. "I watched enough tape of that time that I kept saying to myself, 'How is that team not in the NCAA tourney?' The future looks really good here at Iowa,'' Pikiell said. "It's disappointing that we ended our season this way. ... We fought until the end, but they were just better.'' Tommy Brenton, the player of the year and defensive player of the year in the Seawolves' conference, was limited to five points on 2-of-6 shooting by Iowa. He said the Hawkeyes' team defense was the difference. "We knew they'd be physical, play strong, and they did. They didn't let us finish plays the way we normally do,'' Brenton said. It was all a part of closing the way the Hawkeyes needed to, the way Fran McCaffery has been waiting for his team to close-out games. The third-year Iowa coach offered deserved praise for the way his team played in executing its half-court sets as Stony Brook denied Iowa's its preferred transition attack. "I think it speaks to how far we've come,'' McCaffery said. "... Even on the the misses, for us, it was a matter of keeping the floor spaced, moving the ball side to side, making cuts and screens that made sense and them continue to guard us because that's how they're going to break down. "That's what is going to wear them down. They run, too, so we wanted to limit their running opportunities.'' As Aaron White put it, it is all a part of the equation, the development that is taking place. "We're becoming more consistent on both ends of the floor,'' White said. "It's something we've been waiting to see.''
There was more energy in Carver-Hawkeye Arena tonight than there has been for virtually any Iowa home game this season. When the Hawkeyes needed a boost in their 68-52 win over Indiana State in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament, they found an assist from the full house of 15,400. Even when Iowa missed 15 of its first 20 shots and trailed by eight points late in the first half, it never lost the crowd. That didn't go unnoticed. "They really lifted us up,'' forward Zach McCabe said. "They were into it from the start.'' While the NIT typically plays out in front of half-empty gyms as teams try to play their way to New York City, that hasn't been the case at Iowa the past two years. Iowa played in front of 13,190 fans when it hosted Dayton in an opening-round game a year ago. Tonight, "Sold Out'' signs were taped to the arena doors. Some of it is timing and some of it is ticket price. The crowd tonight was markedly younger than the crowd at most Iowa home games. This is spring break week, both at Iowa and in the Iowa City Community Schools, and apprarently not everybody headed to warmer surroundings. In the hour before tipoff, the concourses were filled with families who made the most of the opportunity to purchase $5 youth tickets. Suddenly, Iowa basketball became affordable for the family and the Hawkeyes were rewarded with the loudest crowd of the season on a night when fans were there to see the team, not just to be seen themselves. Before pregame introductions, coach Fran McCaffery and his assistants looked around the house for a view that never gets old. "I think the fans love watching these kids play,'' McCaffery said when asked why this Hawkeye team has been able to buck the norm when it comes to attracting a crowd in the NIT. "They have enjoyed watching them work. There have been times when we haven't been crisp, when we haven't been real good, but we keep battling, we keep fighting and I think that's what our fans appreciate.'' McCaffery also suspects that Iowa's unselfish style plays well to fans, pointing to assist totals that typically rank among the top-20 in the country. "There is an unselfish nature to this team when you look at the number of assists and baskets game in and game out,'' McCaffery said. "I think they enjoy watching the young guys get better.''
Fran McCaffery did his best to put a positive spin tonight, saying that his Iowa basketball team was "thrilled with the opportunity to play in a phenomenal field in the NIT.'' While the National Invitation Tournament serves a purpose, it isn't the prize anyone wants, Hawkeyes included. Players on this Iowa basketball team had said repeatedly since the start of the season that their goal was the NCAA tourney, as it should be. McCaffery has said he felt his team belonged in the NCAA tourney. As Iowa began turning its thoughts to Indiana State and an opening-round test in the NIT, NCAA selection committee chair Mike Bobinski was discussing why the Hawkeyes and others were on left on the outside looking in. Bobinski, the director of athletics at Xavier, confirmed that Iowa, Alabama, Kentucky, Southern Miss, Tennessee and Virginia were the first six teams left out of this year's field. In discussing several, he provided the bottom line as to why Iowa did not earn its first NCAA berth since 2006 despite its 21-12 record. In discussing Virginia, he mentioned the Cavaliers' lack of non-conference schedule strength. It ranked in the 300 range, a number similar to where Iowa's out-of-conference schedule ranked. In talking about Kentucky, he discussed the Wildcats' inability win away from Rupp Arena. Iowa had similar issues away from home, where its only wins on an opponent's home court came at Northwestern and at Penn State. "If you haven't shown you can play away from your own environment, then that's an indicator to us that maybe you're not one of those 37 best at-large teams,'' Bobinski said. He hinted that success in conference tournaments would have mattered for some of the final teams cut, adding credence to the notion that Iowa's game against Michigan State could have made a difference for the Hawkeyes if they could have held onto a 12-point lead in the final minutes. All of the final teams left out of the field came from power-six conferences and Bobinski said the committee was not attempting to send any sort of message by leaving them out while including four teams from mid-major conferences as the final four qualifiers in this year's field. "We're not in any way trying to send any message whatsoever. That's not our job, not our business,'' Bobinski said. "Our job is to really just identify who we believe are the best 37 teams.'' Bobinski said he personally thinks it is great to spread the field between teams from different levels of conferences, but added, "but we were sending no message when we selected teams that happened to not be from those (power) conferences.''
The silence was deafening in the Iowa locker room following tonight's 59-56 loss to Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tourney. It was a game the Hawkeyes controlled for 30 minutes, leading by 12 with 10 minutes to go by beating the Spartans at their own game. Iowa out-toughed, out-worked, out-played a team which has traditionally set the bar in the Big Ten for intense basketball. It was the grit that NCAA tourney teams are made of. And then, it disappeared. One last punch to the gut to a team which has suffered its share of late-game collapses this season. Michigan State, which orchestrated a six-point turnaround in the final 1:04 of its 62-59 win at Iowa in January, may match the Hawkeyes with just one senior on the roster but the Spartans are experienced in finding ways to win. In the mud and the muck of a physical Big Ten confrontation, they found a way to handle Iowa its seventh loss in as many tries against rated teams this season. "I played against (Michigan State) my freshman year in the Big Ten Tournament. That was the most pysical game I'd ever been in until tonight,'' Devyn Marble said. "When we play each other, it's going to be physical.'' That was the key to Iowa's chances, senior Eric May said. "You have to match their physicality, and i think we did a good job of that,'' May said. "They are a tough team, though, and you have to sustain that the whole game.'' Marble felt the Hawkeyes were able to keep their poise as the Spartans challenged late. "We had to keep it together, knock down some shots. They knocked down some, we didn't,'' Marble said. Coach Fran McCaffery said he challenged his team during a timeout with 3 minutes, 53 seconds remaining after Gary Harris had given MSU its first lead of the game at 50-49 with a 3-pointer. "You know, they're going to hit some big shots. They are good players and a really good team,'' McCaffery said. "We were still right there. It was not time to panic. There was plenty of time left. Just don't panic. We have to get a stop, get a shot, okay. "You turn the ball over against this team and it's usually two points. So, it's get a shot, get a stop. That was really all we were trying to do.'' Iowa hit just one field goal from the 10:24 mark of the second half until Aaron White coaxed a 3-pointer through with 1:33 remaining. Not enough shots. Not enough stops. That led to the silence which filled the Hawkeye locker room, silence created by the knowledge that another opportunity had been wasted.
Following tonight's win over Northwestern, Iowa basketball players were thinking big. They tossed aside the suggestion the Hawkeyes were here at the Big Ten tourney looking to add a couple of wins to their NCAA resume. They're talking title and Friday night's quarterfinal match-up against Michigan State is just the next obstacle in the way. Eric May, the team's lone senior, said there is plenty of room on the bandwagon for fans. "I'm glad people are getting excited about our team. They should be,'' May said. "Every game from here on out is going to be a big game for us and we've put ourselves in a position for that to be the case with the work we've done this season.'' May said it's no accident that this team is the first Iowa club to win 20 games in seven years. "Things have changed and we're glad to be a part of it,'' he said. "We just want to keep it going.'' Devyn Marble, who led Iowa with 19 points agains the Wildcats, called the Michigan State match-up the biggest game he has been a part of in his three seasons at Iowa. His reasoning is fairly-well grounded. "It's the biggest thing because it's the next one,'' Marble said. "That excites me. It's another chance to go out and win.'' Coach Fran McCaffery isn't discouraging such thoughts. He said following tonight's game that he has felt since last summer that "this group had a chance to be special'' because of the way they worked together and the work they were willing to put into their games. Marble did not play in Iowa's earlier match-up with the Spartans, sidelined by an ankle sprain. "I'm looking forward to it,'' he said. "It's not because that is the state I'm from. I'm over that. It's a chance to go out and compete against another good opponent. That's what I'm excited about.'' And then, he'll deal with what comes next. "This is where we all wanted to be. We're in a position to play games that mean something in March,'' Marble said. "That's what this game is all about.''
There's legitimate growth in Gabe Olaseni's game, growth that is being rewarded with additional minutes on the court in Iowa's recent games. The sophomore center has averaged 18 minutes in Iowa's last four games, pushing twice the 10.4 minutes he has averaged over the season. The increase in minutes coincides with Mike Gesell's injury, but coach Fran McCaffery sees the two as unrelated. "It's a function of how he's played. He's really played well and has deserved more minutes,'' McCaffery said today. Olaseni enters the Big Ten tourney having blocked 10 shots in Iowa's last two games. The seven rejections he had against Illinois equals the most by a Big Ten player this season and were two more than Olaseni had collected in his previous 16 Big Ten games. He followed that by dishing out a career-high three assists on Saturday against Nebraska to go with 2-for-2 shooting from the field. With success, Olaseni's confidence has grown and he has become a reliable option on the Hawkeye frontline as Iowa has worked its way to a 20-11 record heading into Thursday's Big Ten tourney opener with Northwestern. His season numbers - he averages 2.8 points and 2.8 rebonds - have doubled from the statistics he compiled over 18 games as a freshman. But Olaseni isn't looking back, shedding the notion that he should have opted to redshirt a year ago as a freshman. "It's easy to say that maybe I should have redshirted,'' Olaseni said. "It would have been another year to work with my teammates. I think at the same time it was a good experience, it gave me something to work towards, knowing that I could play and what I needed to do to work toward decent minutes.'' Work has not been an issue, McCaffery said. He praises the work ethic that Olaseni has shown in practice and in the time he spends on the game on his own. "He puts the extra time in, studies the scouting report, watches film and little by little, he's gotten better in terms of his understanding of everything,'' McCaffery said. That understanding and the attention to detail has led the mobile 6-foot-10 native of London to a valuable role on this Iowa team. "You look at his athletic ability and his ability to guard a small guy, to run a guy down from behind and block a shot. It's there,'' McCaffery said. "He's become more relaxed. We've always said that if we just gave him more minutes he would settle down. At some point, you have to settle yourself down to get those extra minutes and he's done that.'' McCaffery saw Olaseni find his comfort level on the practice floor first before its recent appearance in games. "To his credit, he just kept plugging away,'' McCaffery said. "Now you watch a guy catch the ball in traffic and make a wrap-around pass, catch and dunk it quick, come from behind and block a shot, come from the weak side and block a shot, play in the low post, play in the high post. He's just so comfortable right now.'' Because of that, Olaseni has a comfortable outlook as he thinks about the future. "I continue to work to grow my skills and gain a further understanding of the game,'' he said. "That has allowed me to make the strides I have made and it will help me continue to improve.''
Mike Gesell will enjoy a running start to Iowa's preparations for the upcoming Big Ten tournament. The injured freshman guard is expected to attempt to run a bit at practice today for the first time since losing the walking boot he was given to help him deal with a stress reaction in his right foot. Coach Fran McCaffery said this morning on the weekly Big Ten teleconference that Gesell is making strides and he anticipates that he will be available for Thursday's tourney opener against Northwestern. "The question is how does it feel and how effective can he be? I think he'll be pretty good,'' McCaffery said. Gesell started Iowa's first 27 games of the season, averaging 9 points and 2.9 assists, but he missed the Hawkeyes' final four games of the Big Ten season because of the injury. Unrelated to a left ankle injury which forced Gesell off the court in the second half of Iowa's Feb. 23 loss at Nebraska, the injury involved no fracture but consists of many similar symptoms and requires time to heal. Gesell was allowed to begin shooting again late last week and has slowly added additional work to his routine over the past few days. Today is the first day he will run and McCaffery said if that goes well, he will likely see some practice time in the days leading up to Thursday's 8 p.m. game at the United Center. McCaffery is unsure whether Gesell will return to the point guard position he filled prior to the injury or if he will come back in an off-guard role which would allow Devyn Marble to continue to open at the point for Iowa. "I kine of like Dev with the ball and I like Mike with the ball,'' McCaffery said, adding that ultimately match-ups could determine how both players are utilized.
Fran McCaffery needed only a handful of words when asked today if he would celebrate his 300th victory as a college basketball coach. "No, not at all,'' McCaffery said after his Iowa basketball team reached 20 wins for the first time in his three seasons with a 74-60 win over Nebraska. The regular-season finale at Carver-Hawkeye was filled with memories - Devyn Marble scoring the 1,000th point of his career, seniors Eric May and Christopher Rickert seeing playing time in what both hope will be their final college home game and a team savoring the program's first 20-win season in seven years. In McCaffery's mind, those things were more worthy of celebration than another digit being added to the left column of his won-loss resume. Following his quick response, McCaffery did pause and he reflected briefly. "I've been fortunate. I've been in some great places and I've been fortunate enough to work for really good people,'' he said. "Most importantly, I have had some really terrific players that have played for me at a lot of different stops. You know, I think that's what's to think about.'' McCaffery is a survivor. In a business that chews up and spits out coaches on a regular basis, the Hawkeye coach has withstood the test of time. From leading Lehigh to an NCAA appearance in 1988 to his time as an assistant at Notre Dame to his return to head coaching roles and additional NCAA berths at North Carolina-Greensboro and Siena, McCaffery has suvived and thrived. His players appreciated that as much as anyone today, celebrating a benchmark victory in the rebuilding of the Hawkeye program. "Coach came here with a plan and he is executing it,'' said forward Melsahn Basabe, who traded a letter of intent at Siena for the chance to help McCaffery build in the Big Ten. "Everything he said he would do, he's done,'' Basabe said. "He came here to turn the program around and he's getting it done.'' Senior Eric May, the last Todd Lickliter recruit on the Iowa roster, played his final regular-season home game today. He appreciates the growth and the turnaround as much as anybody. "From day one, coach had a plan and I believed in it from that time,'' May said. "To help it turn around, that's been exciting and it's something I'll always remember. The coaches put us in a position to make that happen. They changed the culture of the program and that has helped turn the record around. Coach McCaffery had a clear vision of what he wanted to get done here and he's doing it.'' Three years in, he is surviving and thriving, repeating growth and success that have been following him around since he coached his first game at Lehigh in 1985.