Howe: Hawkeye Turnaround Result of Hard Work
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Admit it. You didn’t see this coming.
It’s OK. Nobody outside the Iowa locker room did. How could you?
The Hawkeyes performed historically bad last season, particularly on defense. Their adjusted defensive efficiency ranked 242 out of the 351 Division I programs in the country. Their 14-19 overall record and 4-14 Big Ten mark reflected it.
Not much hope was given for a turnaround. The players and coaches saying it would happen convinced few, if any, onlookers. Only they controlled it, however.
As this season has progressed, we’ve searched for some secret formula that’s led to the best about-face among high major programs. There was none to be found.
Following Sunday’s miraculous comeback against Northwestern that saw Iowa erase an 11-point deficit during the final two minutes, junior Jordan Bohannon admitted it wasn’t a game his team would have won last season.
“I think just what we’ve been through these last couple of years. It wasn’t fun. After our freshman year, we had a lot of expectations put on us and (we) put on ourselves and we didn’t live up to it (last season). That was really frustrating for us,” he said.
“For us just to fold over this year, we didn’t want to do that because of everything that we’ve been through and everything we’ve heard from the outside. It’s tough, especially coming into the offseason, but we had a lot of motivation going forward and every single day we worked to get to this point.”
The win against Northwestern raised the Hawkeyes’ record to 19-5 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten. They began Wednesday sixth in conference standings, just a half game behind fifth-place Wisconsin and only two games out of first place in the loss column.
Even as this season has advanced, we’ve looked for cracks in the armor, still unwilling to admit that this team could change so drastically during one offseason. After blowout losses at Michigan State and Purdue in an 0-3 league start, folks exclaimed “Here we go again!”
Iowa bounced back with five wins in a row before falling at home to Michigan State in a highly-anticipated contest at a sold out Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Then, it played poorly in losing at Minnesota, falling to 5-5 in the Big Ten. Again we heard, “Here we go again!”
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The Hawkeyes again responded to adversity with a victory against then-No. 5 Michigan at home, one at Indiana and then came the rally against Northwestern. Any doubts from the outside have failed to penetrate the locker room.
“It’s our maturity,” junior forward Tyler Cook said. “A lot of teams, including us last year, we would have kind of mailed it in (when trailing Northwestern by 15 with 4:30 to play)…we just stayed the course. Like coach (Fran McCaffery) always says, stay the course.”
That included dedication throughout the offseason, especially on defense. It meant committing to each other, getting better individually and collectively.
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Adding productive freshmen Joe Weiskamp and Connor McCaffery to a team that lost only deep reserve, Dom Uhl, from last year’s team impacted things. However, it’s had more to do with eye-rolling cliches.
The Hawkeyes worked hard on improving. They figured out how changing defenses and playing them with effort produces good results. They’ve moved the ball offensively, not caring who scores.
In the upset of Michigan, Wieskamp, Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener filled up the stat sheet. In knocking off Indiana and Northwestern, Bohannon and Cook starred. It’s gone down that way all season.
I was asked on various radio shows and around town here after last season how the Hawkeyes would be able to turn things around. The questions implied that they wouldn’t and often were followed up with Fran McCaffery being on the hot seat.
I always answered the same way: These are college kids. They can improve. In a sport with a lot of turnover, experienced teams can prosper. They can benefit from continuity and chemistry.
That was the hope in a world unlike the pros where a blockbuster trade can drastically change a roster. It was going to be the same guys plus Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery.
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The commitment to improving by these coaches and players should be applauded. The turnaround serves as the exception, not the rule.
Of the 16 high-major programs with a losing records last season, only seven sport above-.500 marks so far this year. Iowa’s .368 increase in winning percentage ranks at the top of that group right now.
Senior Nicholas Baer is the only current Hawkeye to play in the NCAA Tournament. And this team desires more than just making it.
It knows it can’t look too far ahead if that’s going to happen. The Big Ten humbles.
“We’ve clawed back from an 0-3 record in the Big Ten to get to this point, trying to get to the top four teams to get a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s our ultimate goal right now,” Bohannon said.
If he’d delivered that ambition before the season, he would have received a lot of sideways looks. With how this squad has performed to date, it’s shown everyone that objective can be obtained.