By Chris Emma-

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (CBS) — As Iowa’s fight song sounded, an inspired Hawkeyes team took the court on Thursday night. Each player wore a white warm-up shirt with “P-Mac” plastered on their chest.

Iowa’s roller-coaster season is in free fall with the Hawkeyes losing six of their last seven games, most recently an inconceivable 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament’s first round. That dropped them to 20-12, and coach Fran McCaffery must worry whether his Iowa team still has an NCAA Tournament-caliber resume. Patrick McCaffery’s father has his mind on his son’s surgery next week to remove a thyroid tumor.

In a class move, the Iowa players created the “P-Mac” shirts to support their coach.

“We love coach McCaffery and his family a lot,” said Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa’s senior guard and leading scorer. “They’ve done a lot for all of us. When one person is feeling down, we’re all feeling down. He’s family, and we just want coach McCaffery to know that we’ve got his back and that we’d be here.”

The Hawkeyes had inspiration on their side Thursday, but it still wasn’t enough to stop their slide. A team that was seemingly a tournament lock one month ago is now on the bubble.

Even after the first portion of the slump, which brought consecutive losses to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana, Iowa was still in solid shape. A win over weary Purdue seemed to have the train back on the tracks. All Iowa had to do was avoid another three-game skid to end the regular season. Defeats from Michigan State, Illinois and now Northwestern would follow.

It seemed unfair that the embattled McCaffery had to face the media following another gut-wrenching loss. There’s nothing more he can to but hope his Hawkeyes still find their way in the big dance, then reverse their fortunes.

“There’s no magic formula,” McCaffery said. “You just have to keep working. What we’ve said over these last two weeks is you work your way out of things like this. You don’t talk your way out of it, you don’t fake your way out of it, you work your way out of it, and you stay positive. We’ll stay positive as coaches, but we’ll stay positive with one another. You can’t start pointing fingers and blaming each other.”

Blame was aplenty after falling to the Wildcats. A Northwestern team that has struggled all season with offensive production posted a field goal percentage of 52.3. Meanwhile, Iowa was held to a season-low 62 points.

If ever a microcosm of Friday’s game, it’s how Hawkeyes point guard Mike Gesell went 0-of-10 from the field while the Wildcats’ struggling starting point guard, Dave Sobolewski, knocked down 10 key second-half points to propel Northwestern to its victory.

McCaffery has asked for his son’s health concerns to be kept private, keeping the public focus squarely on basketball. Yet, it’s incredibly unfortunate for any father to deal with a situation like this, let alone one in the most demanding time of a high-stress job.

The Hawkeyes are united around their coach but have nothing left in their power to exercise that inspiration. Iowa’s postseason fate now rests in the hands of the selection committee.

Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.

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