Friday, February 24, 2012
For Matt Gatens, timing is everything
By Eamonn Brennan
Consider, for a moment, the kind of week Iowa guard Matt Gatens just had.
On Sunday, he set a then-career high in points, scoring 30 in a 78-66 win over Indiana. Four days later, Gatens scored 33 -- yes, another career high -- in a 67-66 win over Wisconsin. Taken as a whole, Gatens was 22-of-36 from the field, including a scorching 14-for-20 from 3-point range. On Thursday night, he hit two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining, enough to hold off Wisconsin's final push.
"My teammates are like, 'What's gotten into you, man?'" Gatens told ESPN.com by phone Friday. "It's just one of those things. It feels good. It's all been clicking. It's great."
Wherever the hot stretch came from, its timing couldn't be better. That's true of the Hawkeyes, who are suddenly, desperately clawing their way toward fringe NCAA tournament consideration.
Matt Gatens and the Hawkeyes must win out to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament.
Few people are lucky enough to know what they want to do in ninth grade. Gatens was one of them. That's when Gatens, a top-100 recruit in the class of 2008, committed to then-Iowa coach Steve Alford. This may have been the least surprising commitment of all time. Gatens was born and raised in Iowa City. His father, Mike Gatens, played at Iowa in the 1970s. His mother, Julie, is a former Hawkeyes cheerleader.
Gatens remembers visiting practices as a kid, watching Tom Davis' old teams, idolizing point guard Andre Woolridge -- whose No. 5 jersey Gatens adopted as a child (and still wears today) -- lead the Hawks on the break in front of a rocking Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd. Back when Carver-Hawkeye used to rock.
Since he was born, Gatens has bled black and gold. If only he'd been born at a different time.
"When I came to Iowa, my goal was to get to NCAA tournaments and compete on a national level," he said. "We obviously haven't done that."
Gatens couldn't have known it at the time, but his commitment would be followed by one of the more fallow periods in Iowa hoops history. Before 2006-07, Alford's final year with the program, the Hawkeyes had reached the NIT or NCAA tournament in 24 of the past 28 seasons. This dated back to Lute Olson's tenure in the late 1980s and early '90s. Alford resigned at Iowa after the 2006-07 season, just one year before Gatens was set to enter the program.
He was replaced by former Butler coach Todd Lickliter, whose tenure at the school might charitably be described as a "disappointment." "Disaster" is probably a better word. Lickliter went 38-57 overall and 15-39 in the Big Ten in three seasons. His final season, a grating 10-22 campaign, pushed football-obsessed Iowa fans away. In 2010, Lickliter was replaced by former Siena coach Fran McCaffery, and Gatens faced the prospect of playing for the program's third coach in five years.
Through no fault of his own, the hometown kid who only ever wanted to play for Iowa found himself caught in a vicious rebuilding cycle. He was a talent, perhaps Iowa's only talent, capable of scoring in bunches -- Gatens has averaged double-digit points in each of his four seasons -- but not quite good enough to carry a program on his back. The easy thing to do -- what many college players do, and understandably so -- is transfer. But Gatens never gave it a thought, never wavered on his teenage commitment. Why?
"I grew up loving the Hawkeyes," Gatens said. "It was always my dream to play here. Iowa fans have a saying: 'Once a Hawkeye, always a Hawkeye.'"
In McCaffery's second season, the Hawkeyes are still rebuilding. McCaffery has two ESPN top-100 recruits, both Iowa natives, on board for 2012. Which is all well and good, Gatens said, but as a senior with just a few more weeks left in his career, he isn't content to go down without a fight. Frankly, he's running out of time.
"I'm just trying to get this program back to where it deserves to be," he said. "We've got a lot of young guys here. The program is going to be fine. But we seniors want to go out and create our own memories for the fans too.
"You just want to get everything you can out of it. We want to get the tournament. We haven't done it, but if we keep playing the way we are down the stretch, I think we can get into that conversation."
It isn't going to be easy. Iowa, which is 2-8 away from Carver-Hawkeye this season, will travel to Illinois and Nebraska for two of its final three games. Both are must-wins, and they're followed by a home date against bubble team Northwestern in the March 3 season finale. After wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, the Hawks' at-large résumé is much better than it was, but their bad RPI (No. 126) and ugly nonconference strength of schedule (No. 305) mean they have to win out (for a 10-8 Big Ten record) and possibly make a run in the Big Ten tournament to get within striking distance of at-large consideration.
It's a long shot, sure, but it's one that didn't even exist before Gatens dropped 63 points and 14 3s on two ranked teams this week. As his career winds down, and the prospect of life after Iowa basketball comes into stark focus, Gatens is trying to be remembered as more than the hometown kid whose career came at the worst possible time.
"Hopefully the fans will remember me as a guy who loved Iowa, whose dream it was to play here, a guy that remained loyal to the fan base through good times and the bad," he said. "But hopefully, they'll remember me as someone who went out on a higher note. Hopefully they can remember me a winner too."