IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa is still a long way from being a threat in the Big Ten.
But the young Hawkeyes are starting to get there.
Iowa (7-7, 0-2 Big Ten) nearly pulled off the upset of second-ranked Ohio State on Tuesday night. The Hawkeyes led by eight early on and, after blowing the lead, nearly came all the way back before falling 73-68.
Iowa, which was picked to finish in the Big Ten basement, was within a possession of tying it up in the final minute.
The Hawkeyes face No. 11 Purdue (14-1, 3-0) in their first Big Ten road game Sunday. Though Iowa has lost its past 20 games against ranked opponents and back-to-back home games against Illinois and Ohio State, there's a sense of optimism in Iowa City.
"I think we're improving," first-year coach Fran McCaffery said. "From the Illinois game to the Ohio State game, we were better. We're not where we need to be. We made too many mistakes. That's just a fact."
The 2010-11 season was going to be a rebuilding year, with McCaffery taking over for Todd Lickliter last March following three seasons of mediocrity, roster turnover and fan apathy.
McCaffery's commitment to building through youth is starting to pay off, especially in the case of Melsahn Basabe.
Basabe was set to play for McCaffery at Siena. But the 6-foot-7 forward from Glen Cove, N.Y., followed McCaffery out west and has quickly proven himself as one of the Big Ten's more promising freshmen.
Basabe's size and athleticism earned him an immediate starting job for a team in need of both. He is inconsistent, but was dominant against the Buckeyes and standout Jared Sullinger.
Basabe scored a career-high 22 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked six shots, including a few of Sullinger's. McCaffery indicated that Basabe could play a bigger role in Iowa's offense the rest of the way since he's developing more of a perimeter game.
Basabe has averaged 11.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in his past nine games. McCaffery said the next step is how Basabe does on the road against a good team such as the Boilermakers.
"We watched them play Ohio State, and we saw how physical Iowa was and how hard Iowa played. That says a lot," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "Our guys respect Iowa."
The Hawkeyes are also getting valuable contributions off the bench from freshmen Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe.
Marble, a swingman and the son of Iowa leading career scorer Roy Marble, got his first career start Tuesday because of sophomore Eric May's groin injury. He's averaging 5.8 points.
The 6-foot-7 McCabe has been a promising rotation forward so far, with 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, while showing a shooting touch from 3-point range and the free throw line.
One of Iowa's biggest issues has been extended scoring droughts — like getting just 10 points in a 12-minute stretch to allow Ohio State to jump ahead in the second half — but that's to be expected.
The freshmen are still getting adjusted and the veterans are new to McCaffery's system, a much faster tempo than Lickliter's half-court style.
"We're phenomenal in spurts and not so good in spurts," McCaffery said. "Some of that is inexperience and some of that has to be corrected."
There are signs of progress, even if the wins haven't followed. Junior guard Matt Gatens has overcome some early struggles because of a hand injury and is averaging more than 18 points in his past five games.
May, who is second on the team in scoring (11.2 ppg.) and second in the Big Ten in steals, should be back Sunday.
Junior college transfer Bryce Cartwright has averaged 10.5 points and nearly five assists per game in place of injured point guard Cully Payne, who McCaffery said Friday will likely apply for a medical redshirt.