Some lessons in adversity for men’s basketball

CHARLIE KAUTZ

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Say this for the Iowa men’s basketball team.

A season of adversity has proven the Hawkeyes great teachers to a fan base wading through the second year of a rebuilding process led by head coach Todd Lickliter.

And despite Iowa’s latest unfavorable outcome, a deflating four-point loss to No. 20 Purdue on Valentine’s Day, the lessons were bountiful heading into a full week off before the Hawkeyes begin the home stretch of a grueling schedule.

Two weeks ago, Iowa proved it could win a game in which it attempted 30 shots from behind the 3-point line. Over the weekend, the Hawkeyes showed they can contend with some of the Big Ten’s finest without their finest, including injured starters Jeff Peterson, Cyrus Tate, and the academically ineligible Anthony Tucker.

Lickliter’s emphasis on defensive presence helped Iowa contain one of the league’s most consistent scorers, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, who was held to just two points on 1-7 shooting from the field.

Such a performance again revealed Lickliter’s appreciation for teamwork, effort, and other fundamentals of the game that defines the second-year coach.

“I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I thought it was beautiful to watch our guys cover sets, cover people, and rotate, and do the things that you need to do to cause the other team to miss,” Lickliter said.

No one taught the crowd more than Iowa’s sophomore guard Jake Kelly, whose mature emotional resolve has been matched by his physical hardiness in just his second year on campus. Still only months removed from losing his mother, Julia, in a plane crash last June, Kelly has been a humble, steady personality on a team that has admittedly gone searching for on-court leadership in recent weeks.

Even with individual success — Kelly led all scorers with 19 points, added five rebounds and played 38 minutes against Purdue — he has maintained a bashful, hard-working approach in an up-and-down season.

“I’m skinny as hell,” he joked about his wiry 6-6, 195-pound frame during a recent interview.

“Without having Peterson and without having Tate, I thought Iowa played at a very high level,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said. “I thought Jake Kelly was the best player on the floor tonight.”

There were other lessons against Purdue, including that the athletics department’s decision to lower ticker prices has been an appreciated change during the U.S. economic crisis. More than 14,400 fans filled Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the Holiday afternoon tip-off, and despite the heartbreaking loss, they left with another hat-hanging effort from an Iowa team that went only seven players deep.

You already know that answer.

But with only a month separating Iowa from the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, the Hawkeyes’ latest performance served notice to the learning experience that often coincides with a new coaching regime. That goes for those both inside and outside the locker room.

Injuries and academic troubles have made finding a set of realistic expectations nearly impossible for this Iowa team. Even for the coaching staff.

“You never want to speculate,” Lickliter said when asked if the outcome against Purdue would’ve been different had Iowa been at full strength.

There are five games left for Iowa, and I can only speculate on how this team will finish the regular season. But if I learned anything over the weekend, it’s that the Hawkeyes aren’t losing anything to adversity under Lickliter.

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