IOWA CITY, Ia. _ I've been experiencing a lot of flashbacks this month. I guess that happens when the calendar changes years and you'll be 40 in a few months.
As I watched second-ranked Wisconsin systematically dump Iowa, 57-46, Sunday here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, I was reminded of what Iowa looked like last season. Veteran stars, competent and consistent role players, and confidence that they're get the job done, home or road.
The Badgers boast two veteran leaders in Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor that bring to mind Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner. Yes, their games differ, but they supply similar foundations, experience and consistency.
Upperclassmen like Jason Chappell, Brian Butch and Michael Flowers provide the Badgers with seasoned role players reminiscent of Erek Hansen and Doug Thomas. They make the opponent pay for concentrating too much on Tucker and Taylor.
Butch ripped Iowa for 13 points and 14 boards, a career high. The 6-11, fourth-year junior sank 3 of 6 shots from behind the 3-point arc. He came into the game averaging 9.9 points and 6.0 rebounds.
Butch's performance made up for an off night from Taylor, in terms of scoring. Taylor finished with five points, but he dished out five assists with just two turnovers and ran the show from his point guard position on both ends of the floor.
"With experience, you get a better understanding of different situations," Taylor said. "When teams start to make their run, you have experienced guys out there who don't panic. They also don't let the young guys panic. That's definitely working in our favor."
Adam Haluska gives Iowa one of the top talents in the Big Ten, and Tyler Smith will go down as one of the best freshmen ever to don the Black and Gold. However, Smith can't accompany Haluska into the leadership role. Mike Henderson could be that No. 2 presence, but he hasn't stepped into it yet and lacks the natural ability to make players follow him.
That showed on Sunday.
"They just have so much experience," Haluska said. "That was something we had last year. They just work so well together. They know the system well.
"They have a very high confidence level right now. In tight situations, they seem to execute and get the good bucket; get the crucial points; get the crucial stops. They've got great playmakers to do that."
Haluska and Smith struggled to a combined 6 of 35 from the floor and Henderson was outplayed by Taylor. And although Cyrus Tate and Kurt Looby played well, they're not consistent role players like Hansen and Thomas proved to be as seniors.
"Haluska and Smith are two of the more explosive players in the conference," Taylor said. "We knew in order for Iowa to not be successful that we had to try to shut them down."
If it sounds like I'm rolling out the inexperience excuse, I am. Iowa might not be experience deficient against a lot of teams in the Big Ten, but everybody in the league measures up that way when compared to Wisconsin.
Following the game, Iowa Coach Steve Alford said that he was pleased with the shot selection by Haluska and Smith. Smith and Haluska concurred. But if you watched the game closely, the Badgers played wonderful team defense much like the Hawks did last year.
Wisconsin pushed Haluska in from his comfort level around the 3-point line and forced him into the paint where help was waiting. Smith looked at Tucker in his face all day, defensively and trash talking. The Hawkeye freshman learned a valuable lesson from a national player of the year candidate.
Smith went scoreless (0 for 10 from the floor) in the first half and missed his first 12 shots. He dropped the goose egg during the first half at Ohio State last week, but came back to score 21 after the intermission. He managed just eight on Sunday, and two of those came on a meaningless lay-up as time ran out.
That's what you get with freshmen not named Durant or Oden. Smith is an extremely talented player. In fact, I think he is more naturally gifted than Tucker and could someday be superior to the fifth-year senior, but Sunday showed he has a lot of growing before he tries the NBA.
Tucker opened the game with an easy lay-up and just easily flowed with the game. He scored 27 points on 11 of 14 shooting and showed a very high basketball IQ on everything from rubbing off screens to posting up to getting the ball to the open teammate when Iowa's defense collapsed on him.
A microcosm of his team, Tucker was surrounded by guys that seem calm even when Iowa pulled to within four points of the lead on a Looby jumper with 7:40 left in the game. Try as they might, the Hawkeyes missed free throws, backup guard Tony Freeman committed an untimely turnover and it affected them on the defensive end.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin role player Marcus Landry stepped up to score six of his eight points in the final five minutes to help the visitors build their lead back to double figures.
"That just comes with experience," Taylor said. "We don't get rattled on the road. We've been through games like this last year and the experience guys know what to do."
Glancing at the stat sheet, Iowa put up a respectable performance in most areas. It won the battle of the boards, turned the ball over less, held advantages in points off of turnovers and second-chance points and was even on points in the paint. But, Wisconsin shot 46.5 percent from the floor, while Iowa struggled to 28.1.
The fans delivered on Sunday. The atmosphere in Carver was electric. And that played a huge role in Iowa hanging in the game. But you got the feeling that if these teams played 10 times, Wisconsin would find a way to sweep.
That's not to say that Iowa should be discouraged by Sunday's game. It probably was its top effort of the year in terms of hitting the glass and playing physical. But the trick for any inexperienced team is sustaining that through a 30-game schedule.
Iowa heads to Michigan Wednesday and is winless on the road this season. Then, they host a tough Indiana team. You worry a little that failing confidence could creep in if they don't get at least one of these.
Alford praised Tate and Looby for their play on Sunday and hoped that they could continue that success. But we've been here before with these guys and others on the team. The only consistent part of this team has been Haluska and the inconsistency of his teammates.
Iowa sits at 11-10 right now with the NIT big slipping away. This team needs the postseason in any form.
Can it mature in time to finish strong? Time will tell…but I'm not feeling good about it.