From The Ground Up: 14-19 to Among the Elites

It’s been awhile since I’ve done this whole writing thing, but with the events of today in Iowa’s 2nd-round NCAA Tournament loss at the hands of the Oregon Ducks, it felt like it called for fingers to meet keyboard. But I write to you all today, not as a even-keeled member of the media, but as a solemn, heart-broken, lifelong supporter of Iowa athletics. As laidback and level-headed as I have become as I’ve gotten older, days like today still bring out the raw, kid-like emotion in me.

Today was the end of an era in Iowa Basketball. Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon have played their final games for the black and gold, it’s looking unlikely that Joe Wieskamp returns for a senior year, and another transitional phase of players appears to be underway. There are still players who will become the leaders of the program, such as the CJ Fredrick’s and Keegan Murray’s and so on, but losing two (or possibly three) of the heaviest anchors the Iowa program has ever seen is something doesn’t happen everyday.

Many on social media have expressed their gratitude towards this group of players for giving such enjoyable memories in their time in Iowa City, perhaps the most amount of enjoyable memories Iowa basketball has seen since the turn of the century. There are also those who have given a pessimistic tune, that are convinced that the Round of 32 is as far as Fran McCaffery can lead this program, or that flat out ignore the emotion of the game and go straight to the criticisms.

I’m not here to tell you how to cope with a loss as spirit-crushing as this one, to each their own (unless it involves going after the athletes, not cool, don’t care what you think). But what made this group even more special is how far they had risen, after having equally far of a fall in the winter of 2017-18, when much of this group were wide-eyed freshman and sophomore, who nearly got a taste of The Dance the previous year.

14-19: A Welcome to Reality

The fall of 2017 marked my freshman year at the University of Iowa, and a time that felt like Camelot in my young life. I was at college, at my dream school, cheering on the university I had grown up admiring. Iowa football, albeit 7-5 in that season, gave me a mountain of memories from that up-and-down season. Iowa basketball was fresh off an NIT appearance that showcased a very young Iowa squad playing it’s best basketball at the end of the season, and the only loss from that team was Peter Jok. It seemed like Iowa would be able to pick up his departure with a team effort.

That’s when reality hit the team and the fans with a ton of bricks.

Offensively, Iowa continued to be a very efficient offense like it has been all of Fran McCaffery’s tenure. Defensively, the Hawkeyes were more than abysmal, as opposing stars would yell things such as “This is too easy!” while carving up Iowa’s defense. For a team that had set high expectations for themselves, everything came crashing to the ground in a very humbling way. A young Jordan Bohannon was scoring, but could not keep up with the guards of the Big Ten. Tyler Cook was a force in the paint, but only at the offensive end, and a young center named Luka Garza, showed flashes of Big Ten-level consistency, but needed much work on the intricacies of high-level Division I basketball.

I sat through every home game that season, refusing to leave early in my blind faith that Iowa could make something happen no matter what happened. The low point was a home loss on January 19th to 3rd-ranked Purdue, a game that saw the 25th anniversary of the passing of Chris Street. In a day that did honor the Iowa legend properly at halftime, when the lights came back on, Iowa trailed the Boilermakers by nearly 30 points. It sucked to hear so many talk about how bad Iowa was and how they wouldn’t be competitive for awhile in the Big Ten.

But Iowa did not quit on that season, they continued to fight even though their postseason prospects were zero. They even managed to beat Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament 1st round and put a huge scare into the eventual national runners-up Michigan Wolverines in the 2nd round. Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for the upcoming year.

The Return to Form

The following season saw Joe Wieskamp arrive in Iowa City, a star-prospect from nearby Muscatine, he had the chance to raise Iowa’s stock in the conference for the 2018-19 season. It was this time I began broadcasting Iowa basketball and getting closer to Iowa athletics than 10-year old me ever could have imagined. The Hawkeyes started off the season with a fury, running a perfect non-conference record and had plenty of steam to have a solid conference run and reach the NCAA Tournament.

The Big Ten slate saw some unbelievable moments for Iowa basketball, such as upsetting a 5th-ranked Michigan team in Carver on a frigid February night (my first big upset while broadcasting). Iowa coming back from 15 down to Northwestern and capping it off with a Jordan Bohannon buzzer-beating three, I was one of the few who stayed for the whole game. Joe Wieskamp banking a seemingly-impossible three to score a miraculous win over Rutgers, and Jordan Bohannon willing Iowa to an overtime win against Indiana at home.

It truly felt like moments like these helped the Iowa program turn the corner. But, many became pessimistic when the so-called “Fran Fade” hit at the end of the regular season, with consecutive crushing losses to leave many wondering if Iowa could compete in the NCAA Tournament. Following a 1-1 showing in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa reached the Big Dance and grinded out a win against a very good Cincinnati team.

In the Round of 32, the Hawkeyes were faced against the Tennessee Volunteers, a team that had spent a majority of the season ranked #1 in the country. At one point early in the second half, Iowa trailed by as much as 25. I couldn’t watch as I was broadcasting the Iowa women’s NCAA Tournament game in Iowa City. But as continued to check social media, it became clear I was missing a comeback for the ages. The Hawkeyes came all the way back to tie it, but ran out of gas in the extra period as Tennessee advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

The comeback won Iowa the respect of those from around the country and showed that the Hawkeyes had life in the near-future.

Defying the Odds

Heading into the 2019-20 season, Iowa basketball came to a sudden crossroads. Tyler Cook shipped off to the NBA, leaving Iowa without their leading scorer. It then announced Jordan Bohannon had undergone hip surgery shortly after the previous season, and there was a good chance that he was going to need surgery on the other hip at some point as well.

Many looked at these circumstances and thought Iowa was a bubble team at best and likely bound for the NIT without 2 key cogs. These worries came to ahead when Iowa was non-competitive in a blowout loss to DePaul in November and losing out on prized in-state recruit Xavier Foster. Many wondered if Iowa would even be competitive in the Big Ten and if anyone could step up for this team.

You remember that freshman center who had shown glimpses a couple seasons earlier? He was finally ready to take over the on and off the court. Luka Garza had arrived.

Garza began his reign of terror over college basketball in Sin City as Iowa took on national runners-up Texas Tech in a Thanksgiving tournament. Garza dominated in a game that resembled a street-fight more than a basketball game. I watched from a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska with a slice of Casey’s Pizza in one hand and a Busch Light in the other as Iowa picked up an early signature win against the Red Raiders.

Weeks later, Iowa went to it’s personal house of horrors that had haunted the program throughout much of the past two decades: Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State was thought to be a tournament team once again with a star in Tyrese Haliburton. Iowa as a team appeared to be better, but Hilton Magic had victimized the Hawkeyes more than a few times.

Iowa started hot and never let the Cyclones come close to controlling the game in an 84-68 win in Ames, the first since 2003. That’s when I knew this team had “it”, they didn’t BS from anybody. They had a chip on their shoulder, they were confident but not cocky. They thought it was them against the world. To someone who felt very alienated for long stretches of his childhood and teenage years, it was my kind of team.

Iowa continued to rise as the season progressed, even with the injuries mounting and the rotation becoming razor thin. Wins against teams such as Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State showed Iowa was primed and ready to make postseason runs in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. The world then got dumped on its head like a Spencer Lee takedown.

COVID-19 shut the country down, no Big Ten Tournament, no NCAA Tournament. No chance to show the country that the Iowa program had taken the next step forward in national relevancy. It left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. It made those in the program hungry for a chance to prove to everyone that Iowa basketball was a force to be reckoned with.

Living Out the Dream Season

Iowa’s run for the national spotlight began on August 2nd, that was when Luka Garza announced to load up the wagons, he was coming back for a run at a national championship. The announcement sent seismic shock waves throughout college basketball, Iowa was a legitimate player for the national championship. Whether people looking back now still believe that or not, that’s their problem, I still believed Iowa could make the run till the clocks hit 0:00 against Oregon.

Iowa ran through the non-conference unscathed sans the loss to #1 Gonzaga, where Iowa only lost by 11, while only making 4 threes against the potent Zags offense. The Big Ten, however, was a different world in the regular season. Every night was a bloodbath with the physicality and styles of play the league has embraced for years.

Most of the time, Iowa handled these challenges like veteran teams normally do. But, they weren’t exempt from a mid-season slide that saw them drop 4 out of 5 and in real danger of slipping in national favor. But the Hawkeyes, as this group has done for the last 3 seasons now, banded together and stood up to the BS surrounding their group.

Iowa came back with a vengeance, and won 7 of their last 8 games to close out the regular season. The hot streak gave many the sign that Iowa was poised and ready to make a run to the Final Four. While Iowa gave another 1-1 showing in the Big Ten Tournament, their loss to Illinois in the semifinals gave the impression that the Hawkeyes could hang with the best of the best in March, as Illinois was playing the best basketball in the country at the time.

The came Monday morning against Oregon. Many knew Oregon was a very good basketball team, as they were regular season champions of the Pac-12. No one expected the Ducks to play like they did after being off for 9 days prior. Even behind a 36-point performance from Luka Garza in his final collegiate game, Iowa came up well short against the Ducks, who looked more like the Mighty Ducks on Monday. Garza walked off the court for the final time in tears, Iowa basketball has never made me shed tears before, but today was the first time. A legend was done in Iowa City.

So I sit here, hours after the fact, still trying to cope that Iowa won’t be in the Final Four, Elite Eight, heck even the Sweet Sixteen. However, maybe it’s because I’m an optimist by nature, I chose to look back on the great times I had watching this group over the last 3+ years. Fortunately, there were plenty more great times than bad.

I’ll absolutely miss Luka, a player who is the best at the collegiate level this state has ever seen. For as good as he was on the court, he was ten-times that as person off the court. Some feel conflicted about the departure of Jordan Bohannon, I am not one of those. You and I will miss Bohannon’s play on the court, and I have the highest respect for what he did off the court in taking on the NCAA and being the one of the most outspoken advocates for student-athletes rights we’ve seen to date. As for Joe Wieskamp, if he does decide to go, thank you for being an unheralded superstar that never truly got your full due. Those who follow the program know you rank towards the top of those who have played here and your hard-work will make you great money as professional.

I know this was beyond long-winded, but this is just as much for me as it is for you. So while you sit back and continue to stomach this loss, I encourage you all to think about the great times and not the bad, and how damn lucky we were to watch a group as special as this one. It doesn’t matter how the national scene will remember them, it matters how you remember them.

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