After Iowa's loss on the road to Indiana, to say I was concerned with the quality of product that was on display would have been an understatement. I wasn't in some Cuba Gooding Jr. as The Juice in the back of the Bronco type panic, but I was starting to become very worried. Some of the things that so often hurt and burn quality teams in March reared their ugly head and the sheer fact that Iowa came out flat in front of a raucous environment and allowed Indiana to shoot themselves into a 16 point lead in the first half is still bothersome. To make that worse, the bench unit -- which has been so important for the Hawkeyes success -- got swallowed up early and couldn't be trusted late in the second half. If that wasn't enough, they also struggled mightily at putting bodies on bodies and protecting the defensive glass; looking more content playing sand volleyball than grabbing defensive rebounds. The free throw shooting was atrocious. And their all around team defense -- the backbone to all of their gameplans -- was off kilter.
But, those things happen in the middle of February at Assembly Hall -- which has got to be in the Top-10 of the hardest places to win a road game in college hoops; just ask Purdue. We all knew Iowa was never going to be 17-1 in the Big Ten. But to spot a team that is in contention for the same Big Ten regular season crown as you 16 points is a problem. Giving up 19-offensive rebounds for 26-points is a problem. Missing ten free throws is a problem. Getting absolutely nothing from your bench is a problem.
A problem Iowa hasn't really seen this season.
Then Minnesota came to town and Iowa had to grind out the 75-71 win. GRIND OUT. Iowa was so lethargic and once again got very little productivity from their bench (six points to Minnesota's 27), they gave up way too many offensive rebounds (resulting in 13-second chance points for Minnesota) and they came into that game at home with as much juice as a Peyton Manning out-route.
Something was up.
I can't really say that I was mad after that game -- after all they still won -- but I was disappointed. Disappointed that this veteran team could come out so flat in a rivalry game... one in which the Gophers seemed to want a little bit more than Iowa, they just didn't have the horses to get it done.
Nevertheless, there was something weird happening in Iowa City. But a win is a win.
Going into their matchup at the graveyard that is Penn State, I thought it was a given that the Hawkeyes would come out swinging with Tyson-like fury. That they would make a statement and come out blazing like they did earlier in the season against Michigan State. That this game was going to be a piece of cake. Just grab a quick win to go to 12-2 in the Big Ten, stay on top of the standings, get your week off and get everyone back to 100% for the home stretch.
Only it didn't happen that way.
Instead Iowa got punched in the mouth, losing 79-75 to Penn State. Defensively, the Hawkeyes were both shaky and unlucky. Brandon Taylor (18 points), Donovon Jack (19 points) and Shep Garner (18 points) decided to have career nights; and they could do no wrong offensively, burning whatever defense and whatever matchup Fran McCaffery threw their way. It was actually extremely impressive and a good sign for Penn State's future -- especially with the recruiting class that's coming in.
It also didn't help that Iowa missed 10 total free throws (including four in the last couples of minutes when the #BigTenRefs decided every piece of contact was a foul) on the same night that their bench was once again limited to 10 points to the Nittany Lions 29.
I'm no Nate Silver, but three straight games with the same type of play screams that the Hawkeyes were in the midst of a downward trend.
But it was a downward trend that happened at the best possible moment. Think about it for a second. It was the perfect time in Iowa's season for three pretty bad games to happen. Indiana showed them they weren't invincible. Minnesota showed them that they better be careful at home. And Penn State showed them to never look ahead and take each matchup as they come.
And all three games provided the Iowa coaching staff with pages upon pages of things to work on.
Iowa needed something to wake them back up for the remainder of the season. They needed someone or something to provide them with a proverbial shot in the arm to help them get to the finish line. They needed to have their Wisconsin/Rutgers or Illinois/Ohio State moment. They needed to stop putting the carriage in front of the horse. They needed to hit a bump in the road.
It just so happens that Iowa's bump happened right before getting a week off before playing Wisconsin.
And you can bet that Iowa understands that the level of play they showed the last two weeks will not get them to their end of season goals. That the four seniors and junior aren't solely responsible for pushing this thing to the finish line. That they need to function as the nine man rotation that got them to this point and start doing the small things well and let the rest fall in to place.
And if they want to be Big Ten champions and have two virtual home games to start the NCAA Tournament, this is the last possible chance to come together and get it right.