DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Hawkeyes had high hopes a week ago.
They had won three of their last five, including a convincing victory at Indiana, and stayed close in a loss to Ohio State. Iowa headed into the second half of the Big Ten season thinking that maybe its young roster had grown enough to avoid the school's first 20-loss season.
Then came a rough trip to Ann Arbor.
The Hawkeyes (8-15, 2-8 Big Ten) let Michigan jump out to a 17-2 lead en route to a 60-46 blowout loss on Sunday. They returned home Wednesday night and shot just 29.6 percent in losing to Illinois 57-49.
Iowa heads into Sunday's rematch at No. 13 Ohio State (17-6, 7-3) in about the same spot it was at the start of conference play. Back then, some fans joked that the Hawkeyes might have trouble winning more games than the football team, which had 11. With just eight games left, Iowa will need to pull off a few upsets to reach that total.
Third-year coach Todd Lickliter isn't ready to concede anything yet.
"I've never gone into a game that I didn't anticipate winning, that I didn't come up with a game plan to win, and I'm not going to change now," he said.
None of this was unexpected.
The undermanned Hawkeyes have just one upperclassman averaging more than 15 minutes per game, so it's little surprising they're in 10th place in the Big Ten.
The task now is to finish strong and build momentum for 2010-11 — despite five remaining road games against teams fighting for seeding or spots in the NCAA tournament.
One bright spot for the Hawkeyes could be the return of sophomore guard Anthony Tucker. Lickliter said Friday that Tucker, who's been suspended since Dec. 20 for his second alcohol-related offense in two years, will travel with the team to Ohio State. It's not known if he will play Sunday.
Tucker averaged 11.9 points before his suspension, which hurt Iowa's backcourt depth. Freshman Cully Payne is averaging 32.1 minutes while learning how to play point guard, and walk-on John Lickliter, the coach's son, has been pressed into service in a reserve role.
The rest of the season will also be valuable to freshman guard Eric May and sophomore forward Aaron Fuller.
The athletic May has done a little bit of everything this season, ranking in the top 15 in the league in blocked shots, steals and defensive rebounds. He's also raw — as evidenced by an assist-to-turnover ratio of 35-to-49 — but May is clearly one of the key pieces in Lickliter's rebuilding effort.
Fuller, finally healthy after an ankle injury, has been Iowa's leading scorer (11.1 ppg) and rebounder (7.7) in Big Ten play. But he's only been a fixture in the starting lineup since the end of December.
Meanwhile, the team's unquestioned leader, sophomore Matt Gatens, is playing through a sprained left ankle. Gatens aggravated the injury in a shootaround before the loss to the Buckeyes on Jan. 27, yet went out and played 38 minutes. But Gatens has shot 8 of 28 from the floor in his past three games, with six rebounds, one block and no steals.
Gatens' toughness hasn't been lost on his teammates or the coaching staff, and in some ways it's symbolic of what the inexperienced Hawkeyes are going through.
Deal with rough times now, in the hopes that the payoff comes down the road.
"Inch by inch, life's a cinch. But by the yard, it's very hard," Lickliter said. "We're only promised today, and we've got use it to the best of our abilities and get better. I know it's cliches, but I think it's correct."