INDIANAPOLIS _ Some day, the Iowa Hawkeye basketball program might look back on Thursday's loss and take some good from of it, a learning experience if you will. Freshman Jake Kelly again exhibited that he belonged playing Big Ten basketball. Cyrus Tate did the same.
In and of itself, however, the 55-47, first-round Big Ten Tournament loss to Michigan completed a disappointing season and a lackluster last six weeks. The Hawkeyes and their fans could walk out of Canseco Field House looking forward to the future, but the taste in their mouths should be sour.
A Hawkeye team that looked to be improving in January regressed, appeared worn down and often looked disinterested in dropping seven of their last nine games. Instead of building towards Year 2 of the Todd Lickliter Era, Iowa limped into the off season.
After the game, the players appropriately said that 20007-08 was over and they're looking forward. They had to say that. They need to believe that.
"We're going to put it behind us and work our ass off in the off season," Iowa freshman Jake Kelly said. "We're going to come back a ton better. I promise that. We'll be fine."
Again, they have to convince themselves that is what awaits them. It won't be easy when you consider the late-season struggles.
The Iowa players and coaches looked detached from each other during stretches of Thursday's game and too many times since the calendar changed to February. They appeared almost relieved that the season came to an end as they walked off of the court and sat in the locker room here.
"It's very hard to just take that pounding and come back for a game and come back for practice, confident," Kelly said.
I received an interesting perspective on Thursday, sitting closely behind the Iowa bench. A negative vibe existed as the Hawkeyes began to make many of the same mistakes that hampered them throughout the season.
Outside of LaVall Jordan, there was very little feedback being exchanged between the coaches and players after substitutions. Tony Freeman attempted to speak with Lickliter as he returned to the bench at one point, and the head coach threw up his hand to shut him off.
I've heard people express feelings that Lickliter exhibits negative body language on the bench when things break down. I've dismissed in the past but acknowledged and recognized it a lot more in the last 10 games. There seemed to be more of that than tutoring during the contests.
Listen, it has to have been hard. This is the first time Lickliter has built a program. He's not been used to losing at this rate. He's tried to fit square pegs recruited by someone else into the round holes in his system.
You can acknowledge that but still be dismayed by how this thing finished. The Hawkeyes sleep walked through the start of Thursday game, falling behind 20-7 in the first nine minutes and never really making a serious threat until it was out of reach.
"I just wished we could have played the whole game with the same energy and emotion we did in the last eight minutes today," Iowa junior Tony Freeman said.
Why couldn't they? Why did that happen so much during the last six weeks?
After Michigan overcame a 13-point deficit to win, 60-52, on Feb. 14 in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes allowed the same shooters - DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris - that hurt them that night to get open looks again on Thursday. Meanwhile, Iowa played a lot of one-on-one on offense and struggled to get to the ball to its best scoring option, Cyrus Tate, who hit three of six attempts.
"Any time you can erase everything that happened in the regular season, you get a chance to clear your record," Sims said. "Everybody, even the top team in our conference, starts 0-0. It kind of gives you something to play for."
Michigan looked like a team starting anew, putting a 9-21 regular season behind it. Iowa's slate carried the same murkiness it dragged through the last nine games.
The Hawkeyes did put together a nice run to cut their deficit to seven late in the first half, but gave up a tip-in basket by Zach Gibson at the buzzer and then allowed Michigan to score the first five points after the intermission. That proved costly as the teams took part in an exercise of offensive futility.
The Wolverines went 11 minutes, 43 seconds without scoring a field goal but held a double-digit lead during that entire stretch. Iowa amazingly went more than 16 minutes without a field goal.
A fair number of easy shots were missed on both ends of the floor, but Iowa did a lot of standing around. The coaches yelled at them a few times to move, but not much happened. Careless turnovers and mental mistakes handcuffed this team all season.
"You try to block it out, but it still doesn't change the fact that it happens," Freeman said of the continuous miscues.
Without last-place Northwestern, the Hawkeyes season would likely have ended with nine losses in a row. They defeated the Wildcats twice in a pair if tightly contested games.
Hey, maybe the Iowa players and coaches can flush this late season swoon out of their minds and hit the ground running next season. But I have to figure they're proceeding with a least a touch of caution after this collapse.
The step forward, if there was one, was not as long as it seemed it might be in January when the Hawkeyes played very competitive games against Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana, the conference's three top teams. It could work to their advantage as realization that there is a lot of work to do, but it also leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air.
Can Tony Freeman or Jeff Peterson be counted on to run the point next season? Is that Freeman's best position? Can Cole bounce back and how much did it hurt to miss the whole Big Ten season? Is there anybody else that can help Tate inside? How seamless will the transition be for the newcomers or will it be?
If Iowa had played better down the stretch, I would feel much better in answering some of these questions. As it is, it left me concerned going into next season. I felt sure some of it will wear off in time, but Thursday's finish left a lot to be desired.
This team, whether consciously or subconsciously, packed it in during the last month. That added up to a short stay in Indianapolis and an end to a lackluster campaign.