Schwartz: Can We Focus on Hoops?

February 12, 2015

Written by David Schwartz

Iowa is playing its best basketball of the season. Yet here we are smack dab in the middle of a non-controversy-turned-controversy because Fran McCaffery couldn’t laugh off his center’s lack of hand-eye coordination.

The Hawkeyes, if you believe the schedule-watchers, control their route to the second seed of the Big Ten Tournament. Yet here we sit, watching Aaron White, once the humble talent Iowa fans yearn for, emerge from his chrysalis as a rim-hanging, windmill-dunking, technical-receiving bad ass.

Iowa, with two wins against Ohio State, one apiece over North Carolina and Maryland, and a handful of other use victories, seems on course for an NCAA tournament bid – a real-life bid, not that play-in tease of last year. Yet, despite sitting at 6-4 in the Big Ten, it’s easy to remember that at one point last season they were 7-4 before crumbling down the stretch.

The point is, the Hawkeyes find themselves at their season’s most critical juncture. Thursday night they face upward-trending Minnesota, winners of 4-of-6 games since losing to the Hawkeyes, 77-75, on Jan. 13 in Minnesota. The Gophers are basketball conjunctivitis, winning and losing in unwatchable fashion while cracking an ugly stick upside the head of basketball’s usual dance of power and grace.

Then comes Sunday’s game at Northwestern. Lowly Northwestern. 10-13 Northwestern. One-win-in-the-Big Ten Northwestern.

Raise your hand if you feel like beating the Wildcats is a given. The Hawkeyes are 5-5 against Northwestern under McCaffery, and although Iowa has won five of the last six in the series, most of us probably remember the one loss: the first round of last year’s Big Ten Tournament, when Devyn Marble attempted three more shots than the other four starters COMBINED. (White attempted only two shots that game in 28 minutes but hit them both.)

This all might come off with me sounding negative. I don’t mean to. My intent is to show that the Hawkeyes’ season sits at a fork in the road, and what happens between now and Sunday afternoon will go a long way toward how the rest of this season plays out and, ultimately, how this team is remembered.

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Clearly this year’s Hawkeyes are better than last year’s. White has emerged as a Hawkeye whom fans will talk about for years to come (in a good way). Jarrod Uthoff looks like a potential NBA prospect. McCaffery’s wise decision to insert Peter Jok into the lineup showed why he’s the coach and the rest of us sit at home discussing the game over Twitter.

Mike Gesell has transformed into one of the league’s steadiest point guards, but if he needs to attack the rim, he’ll do that too. Gabe Olaseni, who doesn’t seem healthy, can change a game defensively and occasionally provide a shot of instant offense. Anthony Clemmons is a solid backup to Gesell – never underestimate the value of a good backup point guard. And if all else fails, if the Hawkeyes’ offense goes cold and its defense loses focus, they’ve always got the big man ready to go “Rowdy” Roddy Piper on the opposition.

(Kidding)

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That’s one reason I was so bummed by McCaffery’s demeanor after Sunday’s win against Maryland. Adam Woodbury clearly isn’t sticking his fingers in eye sockets on purpose. McCaffery, however, let the troll Dan Dakich get to him, and now he’s treating every reporter who asks a legitimate question like Dakich. As a result, we have to hear about this eye-poke garbage instead of thinking about what we should be thinking about: Minnesota and Northwestern.

This Iowa team is too talented, too cohesive and too fun to get sidetracked by a troll broadcaster, the false perception of dirty defense and an excellent, appreciated coach who could have diffused it all with a smile.

Oh, well.

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Let’s try to focus on hoops, on whether Iowa can hold off the muck that is Minnesota basketball, then shake off hope-leeching Northwestern in Evanston. This is what’s important: four days that will reveal much about the hopes and dreams of Iowa’s season. Not eye-pokes. Not misdirected anger.

Just basketball.

• Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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