Iowa CITY, Iowa - Fran McCaffery tried to act calm but inside he was steaming. He answered the first few questions presented to him at his press conference Thursday night with one or two words to allow himself more time to cool down.
Several things worked on the Iowa coach's nerves in a 62-59 loss against No. 18 Michigan State. His team's continued lack of toughness and displeasure with the officiating sat at the top of the list.
McCaffery commented on his team's shortcomings. He touched on the referees while being careful not to let his words get him in trouble while talking about the absence of leading scorer Devyn Marble, who missed the game with sprains to his right ankle and big toe.
"You know, they're a very physical team defensively, and you need a guy who can break his man down and get to the rim and get to the free-throw line," McCaffery said. "Of course, I don't know if anybody would have gotten to the free-throw line that much tonight, apparently."
Michigan State wasn't called for its first personal foul until 11 and half minutes into the game. Asked about that after the contest, McCaffery offered up a "no comment on that" which said all anyone needed to know.
While the officials didn't do the Hawkeyes (11-5 overall, 0-3 Big Ten) any favors, they lost because of poor offensive execution. Iowa turned the ball over 18 times.
Pin some of that on Marble's absence. He takes a lot of pressure off of freshmen point guards Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell. They combined for eight of the giveaways and looked shaky having the ball in their hands more than usual without the star.
"Offensively, we played with no toughness whatsoever," McCaffery said. "They don't change defenses. They don't press. You can't turn the ball over 18 times."
Zach McCabe (17 points, seven rebounds) and Melsahn Basabe (14 points, two steals) kept Iowa in the game with their determination off of the bench.
"Melsahn and Zach were fabulous," McCaffery said. "Did exactly what we need them to do."
McCabe, a junior, appeared the most visibly upset after the game.
"We can't lose. I hate losing," a solemn McCabe said. "It's frustrating. I thought we were playing so well. It just sucks."
Thursday's loss to the Spartans (13-3, 2-1) came on the heels of setbacks to Top-10 ranked Big Ten opponents, Indiana and Michigan. Even though the competition in the country's best conference has been stiff, you wonder about the psyche of a young team on a three-game losing streak. The Hawkeyes have let escape the opportunity to grab a quality win or two for their NCAA Tournament resume, particularly at home against the Hoosiers and MSU.
"I'm not thinking about that at all," McCaffery said. "I'm just thinking about how we're going to win the next game on our schedule. Obviously, we're disappointed. We had an opportunity to win this game."
As a coach, McCaffery can't get too far ahead of himself and needs to keep his team on a one-game-at-a-time pace. The coach and his players know they have to turn the tide before the train comes completely off of the tracks.
The Hawkeyes return to the road this weekend with a Sunday game at Northwestern (4:30 p.m. CT, ESPNU). McCaffery classified Marbe's status for that game as "iffy."
"We need to go up there and get a win," Basabe said. "Somebody just beat us in our house. We need to go to Northwestern and prepare to beat them in their house."
A good place to start the preparation would be in holding things together down the stretch of games. They need look no farther than the MSU film to see an example.
The Hawkeyes led Thursday's contest 56-53 with 1:34 left in regulation. Aaron White fouled MSU guard Gary Harris on a three-point attempt. He sank all three from the foul line.
"We didn't get the rebound and fouled the three-point shooter," McCaffery said. "That's the bad play."
Marble had played in his first 81 games with the Hawkeyes and started 42 of the last 50 contests. Iowa came out energized, looking focused without him. Senior Eric May, who replaced him in the starting line-up, sank a three-pointer to send the Hawkeyes on a 7-0 run. They built the lead to 24-12 with Basabe and McCabe combining for 13 points.
Michigan State got is feet under it midway through the first half. The Spartans cut the Iowa lead to 28-24 at the intermission.
"I was so happy that we were only down four at halftime," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "The remarkable thing is finding a way to win on the road. They are a good team."