For as long as I have followed Iowa men’s basketball, there always seems to be a stigma of pessimism surrounding the program. Not from the players and coaches themselves, but the rabid, passionate fanbase that filed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena nearly 20 times a season.
They had reason to, after the unceremonious release of Tom Davis, fans endured the tyrannical and morally corrupt regime of Steve Alford and the dark ages of Todd Lickliter.
Sometimes it may have even been the disappointment of the football season that carried over into the basketball season. The vibes around Carver were downtrodden when the team had yet to have a chance to achieve anything.
Fran McCaffery arrived in 2010 hoping to fix the broken Iowa basketball program. He had the pessimism quieted as he took Iowa to the NIT finals in 2013 and opened up the next season with a team that had a great shot at making a deep NCAA Tournament run.
But old habits died hard as Iowa flamed out down the stretch and lost in the NCAA First Four to Tennessee. It’s a pessimism that Iowa fans haven’t shaken since then.
Negativity reared it’s ugly head much earlier than normal this season as Iowa was taken to the woodshed by DePaul in a 93-78 drubbing in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Looking at social media after the game, you would’ve thought the season had just ended.
But the tales of the demise of Iowa basketball were greatly exaggerated.
Iowa did not quit, continuing to improve game in and game out, with that improvement showcased in their 72-61 win over defending national runner-ups Texas Tech in Las Vegas. Iowa captured wins at Syracuse and home against Minnesota after that, both teams that made the NCAA Tournament a season ago.
But I know that every Hawkeye fan was peeking at the calendar and feared a December 12th trip to Hilton Coliseum to take on Iowa State. Iowa’s personal house of horrors and a venue that the Hawkeyes hadn’t won at in 16 years.
I was as surprised as anybody at the first half Iowa had Thursday night. You never expect something like that in a rivalry game, much less at Hilton Coliseum. But everyone, including myself, knew that Iowa State hadn’t had a signature run yet.
Well it came right off the bat in the second half, Iowa State went on a 16-5 run to open up the half. Hilton was in pandemonium. This was where teams such as 2013 and 2015 collapsed under the mantra of “Hilton Magic”.
That’s when destiny came calling for Iowa, in the form of a Connor McCaffery three and a Joe Wieskamp and-one bucket.
It was particularly sweet to see McCaffery drain the three, a player who has been the target for a lot of unfair and unjust criticism, including the questioning of his status as a Division I basketball player.
His performance since the Texas Tech game in Las Vegas has more than proven he belongs on a Division I court. His three, Wieskamp’s and one, followed by Luka Garza’s All-American play carried Iowa out of the Iowa State run and kept the Hawkeyes in control.
It was the kind of answer I’d never seen from a Fran McCaffery-led team before.
Iowa State could never find enough momentum to duplicate that run, as Iowa held them at arm’s length the rest of the way in their 84-68 domination of the Cyclones. A domination that surprised almost everyone in the state.
To me, it felt like the Iowa program had maybe hit a turning point. Winning at Hilton Coliseum hadn’t been done in 16 years, the streak was finally over and this group made it happen in convincing fashion.
With that, I leave you all with this:
Last night’s result showed that it’s OK to enjoy Iowa basketball and not be marred in pessimism. It’s OK to have high hopes and believe things will be different if you’re an older fan.
Students: You have an exciting, gritty basketball team this year. Get to Carver and give them the home-court advantage they deserve. You have four years to experience something like this, make the most of it.
For the continuously optimistic fans, you will be vindicated soon enough with this Iowa team. While Jordan Bohannon may or may not be in the picture the rest of the season, this team has the heart and the fight to still make this season an enjoyable one.
Finally, to those who are continuously pessimistic, I’m not sure what else to tell you other than this group of players will gladly continue to prove you wrong. They’ve been told for the last 2 1/2-3 years that they can’t do it, that they’re not athletic enough and talented enough. It’s the doubters that keeps the flame burning bright within them.
There’s no quit in this team, and you’ll have to take them out in a body bag before they’ll readily surrender in defeat.