IOWA CITY, Iowa - After losing seven of its last eight games a season ago, Iowa has waited and worked to put that bad memory behind it. Talking about the collapse has been therapeutic but the biggest step in erasing the bad taste has arrived.
The Hawkeyes play host to Hampton Friday (8:30 p.m. CT, ESPN3) in their 2014-15 opener. They return three starters from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since '06.
"Practice is a great time for us to build chemistry and go through our ups and downs," senior captain Aaron White said. "You're not always going to have your best day. We've had days where we haven't played as well as we wanted to but we've bounced back the next day and brought the effort and energy we needed.
"You expect that with any team. Every day is not going to be perfect. We've done a good job of fighting through the good and the bad and come together through it all."
Iowa struggled to shake off Northwood (FL) through the first half of their exhibition game on Nov. 2, leading by just seven at the break. The Hawkeyes came out of the intermission determined and locked down on the NAIA school in a 92-51 win. The improved defense reflected well on a Hawkeye squad that Coach Fran McCaffery said needed its most improvement in that area after last season's limp to the finish.
"We've made it a big emphasis," starting guard Mike Gesell said. "One of the big things for us is just sustained effort on defense; not having small miscues, especially at the end of the shot clock, finishing out the possession. That's been a major emphasis for us and it's paying off."
A preseason poll of MEAC coaches tabbed Hampton to finish second in their conference this season. The Pirates finished 18-13 overall a year ago and 13-13 in the league.
Hampton junior guard Deron Powers was named to the preseason all-MEAC first-team after averaging 11.8 points and 4.0 assists in '13-14. Classmate Brian Darden was selected to the third-team following a sophomore campaign that saw him score 10.8 a contest and knock down 63 three-pointers.
"This is a difficult when you're playing a team that is going to be a 20-win team that expects to win their league, that's a different kind of opener than a lot of people are going to play," McCaffery said. "But when we agreed to play in this tournament, we kind of knew, all right, the field is really good that ends up in New York. But the rest of the teams are also going to be good. North Dakota State same thing."
North Dakota State comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Monday as the next part of the 2K Classic. The Hawkeyes then travel to New York City's Madison Square Garden with Texas, Syracuse and California for the Final Four of the event.
McCaffery said Wednesday that he anticipated starting the same five who opened up against Northwood. That group included White, Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury. In that contest, 10 different Hawkeyes played 15 minutes or more.
Iowa battled injuries early in the preseason but appears healthy outside of a nagging foot problem with freshman guard Brady Ellingson. McCaffery said the Wisconsin product would be unavailable on Friday.
"He did a lot more in the last three days than he had in a while, but that was by design," McCaffery said. "(We) felt like it was time for him before and he came back and he was still hurting, so we shut him down. He didn't really do much for probably three weeks, which is a lot this time of year. He missed three weeks, but he's in the weight room right now and working hard.
"So we'll see every day just a little bit more. Pretty soon he'll be back playing, and then we'll evaluate him and see where he is because he's got to get back in playing shape. Physically he looks good because Bill Maxwell's working him out hard in the weight room, but still, running is a whole other story."
McCaffery said he still planned to play Ellingson this season but that a redshirt was possible.
"You get to a point where you say okay, that's it. We're not there yet," the coach said.
Watch McCaffery talk about the Hampton game and the upcoming season in this HI compilation video: