INDIANAPOLIS — Fran McCaffery has built a consistent winner in Iowa City. Unfortunately, he's also built a consistent late-season loser.
As far as the Iowa program has come in recent seasons, the Hawkeyes can't seem to shake their unsolvable habit of playing their worst basketball at the worst possible time.
It is a recent trend, sure, but a trend nonetheless. For the third straight season, Iowa was bounced from the Big Ten Tournament in its first game, losing to Illinois on Thursday in a shocking upset.
But the 68-66 score didn't really tell the story. The Hawkeyes trailed the Illini by as many as 11 on multiple occasions. A late-game double-digit deficit was erased thanks to an 11-0 run, but Iowa couldn't stop Malcolm Hill from burying a go-ahead jumper. And it couldn't even get a shot off on a final possession it had two chances at running.
Thursday's loss, though, was not exactly unpredictable. No, the No. 5 seed shouldn't be losing to the No. 12 seed in a conference tournament (that's for the Big Dance), especially a No. 12 seed that No. 5 seed beat by double digits just a month ago.
But this was the latest stumble in a long line of them over the past few weeks for Iowa, which lost five of its last seven regular-season games heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
It was a finish eerily similar to the one this same group of players, give or take a few key cogs, experienced in 2014, when the Hawkeyes lost five of their final six games of the regular season before bowing out of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in the first game. And while last season didn't feature quite the same collapse, there was still a first-game exit from the conference tournament, a loss to Penn State at the United Center.
In the worst possible way, it's deja vu all over again for Iowa.
"I would say we didn't get off to good starts in any of those three games," McCaffery said in reference to his team's three straight quick oustings from the Big Ten Tournament, "and I don't think in a tournament situation that's a good thing."
McCaffery was outwardly frustrated during his postgame press conference Thursday, telling one reporter who asked which play was run in a certain situation that it was "none of your business what the play call was." And that continued, as he had short answers for what has gone wrong this season.
When asked what the problem has been over this losing stretch of the season:
"Well, I think that's pretty obvious. We're not making shots, turning the ball over."
Accurate, though that might be, not the most helpful explanation.
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But he elaborated a bit when asked about the guys who make up this team now. Four of Iowa's five starters are seniors, the other a junior. They were all here two seasons ago when that end-of-season spiral featured a tourney loss to Northwestern in Indy. Is it "oh no, not again?" for those players?
"When you're a senior, I think you should realize that tournament play is different. It just is," McCaffery said. "And you’ve got to be ready. We out-rebound (Illinois). I thought our assist-to-turnover ratio in the first half was terrific, but we missed a ton of shots. Eighteen turnovers. You can't win a tournament game turning the ball over 18 times. Can't."
Each of the last two seasons has featured an early NCAA tournament exit for Iowa, too. Two years ago, the Hawkeyes were bounced from the "First Four" by Tennessee. Last season, they were ousted in the Round of 32 by Gonzaga.
This season, the expectations were higher than ever after Iowa reached the top five in the country. Those days seem long, long ago, and who knows how low the Hawkeyes will drop for the bracketologists and the selection committee after Thursday's loss.
Iowa has won just twice in its last eight games. It's guaranteed one more contest, but will the outcome be any different?