Chemistry Not A Cliche for Hawkeyes

Iowa has exceeded many outside expectations this season but not its own. The Hawkeyes have been building for success for the last several years and have come together at the right time. As HI Publisher Rob Howe rights, chemistry is not a cliche for these guys.

SEATTLE - The Iowa players were getting restless Friday night. Five minutes remained in the open locker room period with the media but most of the reporters had completed their interviews and were gone.

Josh Oglesby covertly snuck over to the stereo when the NCAA officials ducked out of the room. He hit play. A popular song blasted out from the speakers.

Walk-on forward Okey Ukah instinctively broke into a dance. The rest of the Hawkeyes clapped to the beat. Clearly, this scene had played out before.

The mood was understandably joyous. Iowa just erased Davidson from the Big Dance, 83-52, the largest margin of victory ever for this program in this event. It'd been 14 years since the last NCAA triumph, when these guys were in elementary school.

The explanation for the locker room scene stretched beyond shear thrill of victory. A palpable connection held these Hawkeyes together. Chemistry complemented talent in overcoming adversity.

In 2013-14, Iowa closed the season losing seven of its last eight games. The collapse followed a rise to a mid-season Top 10 national ranking.

"Definitely, last year, we were a great team but I felt as though late in the season we kind of broke apart," senior center Gabe Olaseni said after the Davidson win.

Outsiders wondered if another free-fall was occurring last month when the Hawkeyes lost in overtime at lowly Northwestern. It marked their fifth setback in seven games, dropped them to 6-6 in the Big Ten and placed their NCAA Tournament hopes in serious jeopardy.

At the time, captain Aaron White asked fans for faith. He requested they not cast a dark cloud of negativity over the team but believe in he and his teammates, who met in a players-only meeting following the setback in Evanston. They resolved to avoid a repeat of last season.

This squad proved resilient. It won its final six regular-season games after the Northwestern upset. All seemed right again.

Then, 13-seeded Penn State knocked off the No. 5 Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Tournament. Outside doubt again surrounded them. ESPN's Jay Bilas and Joe Linardi predicted them to lose by double digits to Davidson.

White and his mates didn't flinch. They returned to practice with renewed focus. They came together again when some on-lookers thought history might repeat itself.

"We have a lot of respect for each other," junior center Adam Woodbury said. "We don't have a lot of hang-ups on the team. Everybody gets along.

"That speaks volumes about who the people on the team are and the character we have and what our coaches are all about. It's not about one guy. It's about 14 collectively. We're all trying to pick each other up when we make mistakes and play for each other."

Strong personal chemistry can transfer to on-court synergy. Seven of the nine players in the Iowa rotation are seniors and juniors.

"Just being with each other for so long of a journey, it makes you really respect the guys; seeing them every day in the gym," Olaseni said. "When you watch guys like Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff and everybody else working so hard, it instills in you that you can make that extra pass, make that rotation (on defense) because you know they're going to be there to help you."

It's an eclectic mix. Olaseni hails from London, White calls Ohio home, Anthony Clemmons comes from Michigan, and Woodbury, Uthoff, Oglesby and Peter Jok are in-state prep stars. Mike Gesell might as well be in that group, growing up in Eastern Nebraska.

"It's a little different," Oglesby said of appreciating the success as a local. "But a lot of these guys have been here four or three years and it means a lot to them, too, because we put in hard work during the off-season. We've work for this all season just to be in this position."

Like a lot of teams in this tournament, Iowa's roster isn't populated with high school all-Americans. It's a group of players that grew their games individually and together.

In this age of college basketball, when the top teams often succeed with "one-and-done" athletes, a larger percentage of programs build with four-year guys. The hope is that they develop, bond and mature enough to challenge the blue bloods. As this year's NCAA Tournament is showing, that's the dynamic of the game at this level.

The Hawkeyes fall into that latter group. They believe they're as good as anybody in the country and the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

With time ticking away on Friday's victory against Davidson, and a match-up in the next round against No. 2-seed Gonzaga secured, Coach Fran McCaffery cleared his bench. The regulars stood up on the sideline and supported Ukah and the other reserves, who were no less important than them in keeping this team together

"We're playing great. We're playing together," Oglesby said. "Everyone cheers everyone else on. We're staying positive. It's awesome to see everyone cheer everyone on.

"You look at when Kyle Denning comes in and hits a three tonight and the bench erupts. Everyone is proud of him. Everyone just wraps their arms around each other. We stay together but we also hold each other accountable."


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