I'm sorry guys, before I even attempt to write this piece about the Iowa Hawkeyes senior class -- you know, the one that changed the programs fate (hopefully) forever -- it seems only right that we all get in one giant hacky-sack circle, join hands, raise our heads to the sky and sing this great nation's most splendid graduation song:
AS WE GO ON, WE REMEMBER, ALL THE TIMES WE, HAD TOGETHER... AND AS OUR LIVES CHANGE, COME WHATEVER, WE WILL STILL BE, FRIENDS FOREVER.
Man, that just felt so right.
Now, where were we. Ah, yes. The 2015-16 Iowa Hawkeyes senior class. The unit that went to three straight NCAA Tournaments and who were one giant, ugly, no good, rotten end of season slide (which might not have happened had Mike Gesell, a freshman at the time, didn't miss the last four regular season games because of a foot ailment) from going to four straight. A group of guys that dragged Iowa basketball out of the dark Lick-a-tory they were stuck in and will leave them in this lovely, relevant light.
And who would've honestly thought back in the fall of 2011 that Fran McCaffery's 25th ranked recruiting class -- which really only featured two prominent signatures and a few other lesser recruits including Anthony Clemmons -- would have done all of that?
It's easy for us to get caught up in the here and now. We've all done it. Hell, I did it just a week ago. But when you actually sit down and look at what was left behind by this class, how could any fan of Iowa athletics not appreciate the ground work they left behind?
Maybe that's what I'm ultimately here for. Maybe I need to remind you all of the good times we had together with the likes of Aam Woodbury (the big man that believed in McCaffery's vision), Mike Gesell (that scrappy little point guard from Nebraska that turned down Stanford to come to Iowa City), Anthony Clemmons (a player that continued to get better and better no matter the adversity he faced; slowly becoming Iowa's essential glue guy) and Jarrod Uthoff (the kid that came back home and became one of the best players to ever put on an Iowa basketball jersey).
Maybe I just need to take some time and go back to their first two years on campus so we can all remember the small leaps this class took to get us to a point where "not going to the Sweet 16" was a disappointment.
Maybe we all just need to take one giant step back, open up our eyes and take the time to realize what this class was able to do in such a short period of time.
I remember the first game of that season against UT Rio Grande Valley like it was yesterday. How I wish I was one of those 14,859 fans that were in Carver Hawkeye Arena (which was the largest home opener since 2001 at the time) that got to lay live eyes on McCaffery's brand new toys; which included a seven-footer that guys like Roy Williams wanted ever so badly.
And that seven footer came out in front of his new home crowd and scored ten points, grabbed three boards and blocked three shots while Hawkeye Nation as a collective unit let out one giant gasp of relief for the first time since 2005.
One game later, Mike Gesell had his first breakout game against the Central Michigan Chippewas, with the true freshman point guard finishing the contest with fifteen points and five assists (he tallied up nine of his 557 career assists in those first two games). It was also the first time we saw how hard Mikey worked on both sides of the court; consistently dogging the opposing point guard into fits.
Oh and how about the "I didn't know these two guys could do things like this" play against Howard:
There was also that HUGE 80-71 victory over Iowa State where Gesell (11 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals), Woodbury (nine points, four rebounds) and Anthony Clemmons (14 points, eight assists) led the victorious charge at home:
And let's not forget some of the lower moments, including the tight, competitive as hell loses against Nebraska (melt down), Wisconsin (in overtime), #23 Minnesota, Purdue (overtime), the #5 ranked Indiana Hoosiers at home (damn you, Oladipo) and Michigan State, twice (including a should've, would've, could've been 59-56 loss to the Spartans that would have probably punched their ticket to the only big dance these guys missed as a unit).
It's important to remember the trials and tribulations at the end of that season with this crew. Sure, it was kind of ugly. And yes, those losses (especially the ones against Purdue and Nebraska) forced the selection committee to take a pass on the Hawkeyes. But remember, this was the first time in a long, long time that Iowa was right there against some of the Big Ten's blue bloods instead of just being shell shocked consistently.
And for the first time since Steve Alford left the program in a tizzy, this team was exciting as hell and able to play the up and down style McCaffery pitched to all of Iowa City during his opening press conference.
Plus, lest we forget, going to the NIT Championship game was one tasty consolation prize that changed our future expectations entirely.
AKA, NCAA Tournament or bust.
As sophomores, this group -- of course with the help of Devyn Marble and Aaron White -- finished the non-conference season with an 11-2 record. That included a shocking victory against Xavier in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, where Iowa, who didn't lead a single minute in regulation, rallied all the way back from 15-points down to steal that game in overtime:
And an overtime loss to Villanova in the Battle for Atlantis Final (a game that I took so hard, I drove from Philadelphia to Orlando an hour after the game ended instead of waiting until the morning). I'm not sure if maybe I remember this game more because of my fiance's family and their affiliations, but I won't soon forget how heart wrenching and exciting it was watching Ryan "Arch Madness" Arcidiacono and Marble go back and forth in those last few minutes of regulation. And even though it ended up in a loss, that overtime actually allowed Jarrod Uthoff to build some confidence in crunch time minutes in his first big game in an Iowa jersey.
The other loss was just as heartbreaking, as Iowa lose to Iowa State in the final minute, which marked the first time that Georges Niang decided that ripping the heart out of Iowa fans every where would be an entertaining enterprise for the next few seasons.
There was the double-technical McCaffery game against the #4 ranked Badgers (Gesell had nine points, seven assists, three steals and three rebounds). The watershed, 84-74 victory at the then #3 Ohio State Buckeyes; a game that really allowed this team to get over whatever mental hurdles they had late in games against "superior" teams... at least for a while. And of course the 85-67 blow out over #10 Michigan, which was arguably Mike Gesell's best all around game in his young career; finishing with ten points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals and a fantastic defensive effort against Derrick Walton Jr.
And then the slide.
Yet, Iowa still -- by the skin of their teeth -- got into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 and even after that play-in loss to Tennessee, just knowing that McCaffery and this recruiting class helped get Iowa back into the madness was paramount for where this program was going to go as the 2012 core matured.
Oh and don't forget, this was the year of "the dance before the big dance" and that overwhelming support for P-Mac that tugged at every single one of my heart strings:
That second year ended with some heavy tribulations for both the players and coaching staff on and off the court. But they still managed to do what so many of us thought was highly improbable.
In just two years, Woodbury, Gesell, Clemmons and Uthoff (of course, among others) started to beat good basketball teams. They learned how to win. How to hold onto leads (and what happens when they don't). How to come back from what seemed like insurmountable deficits. They learned how to battle through both real life and sports adversity.
And that ground work led the Hawkeyes to two straight second weekend NCAA Tournament appearances. It led to so many deep and emotional moments the past five months that left us all full of adrenaline, appreciation and that child-like feeling that anything is possible:
And if I would have asked any one of you four years ago if you would enjoy an NIT Final's appearance, followed by conference and national relevance, Top-25 rankings (including a run in the Top-5), three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, a sweep against Michigan State and Purdue in the same year and an overtime Cinderella/One Shining Moment tip-in against Temple, we all would have gladly accepted that with open arms.
And if I would've asked you if you thought that Woodbury would have started in 137-of-138 career games (playing in all 138 of them, a school record), Gesell would be the single season assist leader with 205 dishes his senior year, Clemmons would have stuck around all four years while tying for third in games played with 137 total, and Uthoff would finish his Iowa career 19th in the career scoring record books and fourth in blocked shots, I don't believe that many of us would've said "yes".
So as we close the book on this four years story, we need to remember that these kids came to Iowa because they believed in whatever McCaffery was cooking.
And because of those decisions, we now, as a collective fan base, believe that their accomplishments are merely the minimum of where we should go from here.
And as delusional as that might be on the surface, it's also a fantastic place to be. After all, before they signed their names to their LOI's, the only thing many of us believed in was helplessness.