It’s widely thought that the Iowa men’s basketball team has to win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament in order to make the NCAA Tournament.
That would give Iowa 22 victories overall, with 11 coming against Big Ten opponents if you combine its 9-9 record in conference play. You’d think with the Big Ten being so strong this season that 22 wins combined with playing well down the stretch — Iowa won six of its last eight regular-season games, including three of four without injured point guard Mike Gesell — would be enough to impress the NCAA Selection Committee.
Making the dance for the first time since 2006 is clearly the next step in Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding process. There would be some advantages to making a deep run in the National Invitation Tournament as opposed to making a quick exit in the NCAA Tournament, but not enough to offset the importance of finally being back in college basketball’s premier event.
Seven years of being on the outside looking in is just too long for a program with Iowa’s tradition.
“We’ve been through the struggles and kind of turned it around last year and made the NIT and now it’s all about that next step and getting quality wins and making it to the (NCAA) Tournament,” sophomore forward Aaron White said after Saturday’s 74-60 victory over Nebraska in the regular-season finale at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.”
McCaffery has the program so close to getting over the hump that getting two victories in the Big Ten Tournament, including one against lowly Northwestern on Thursday in the first round, is probably all it would take.
Of course, Michigan State will be waiting to face the winner in Friday’s quarterfinal round. But nobody ever said getting over the hump would be easy.
And just when it looked like Northwestern was running on fumes, the Wildcats almost ruined Michigan State’s Senior Day on Sunday before losing 71-61 in East Lansing, Mich. It was hard to see that coming because Northwestern had lost seven games in a row, and most of the games weren’t competitive.
I still say that Iowa is catching a break by facing No. 11 seed Northwestern in the first round instead of No. 12 seed Penn State, which almost upset Wisconsin on Sunday. Iowa defeated Northwestern twice in the regular season, with each victory by double figures. Northwestern putting a scare into Michigan State on the road Sunday is more of a fluke than Penn State doing the same thing to Wisconsin at home.
The Nittany Lions are a dangerous team right now under fiery coach Patrick Chambers. They showed it again Sunday against Wisconsin, losing on a shot at the buzzer. It was a devastating loss for a Penn State team that has suffered more than its share of hardship this season.
But you won’t find a more resilient bunch. Penn State’s 2-16 record in Big Ten play is deceiving because two of the victories came in the last four games.
Northwestern, on the other hand, closed the regular season with eight consecutive losses. The Wildcats would have to catch fire from 3-point range and Iowa would have to play horribly for an upset to occur Thursday.
So then it would come down to having to defeat Michigan State in the quarterfinals to get to where many feel the NCAA Selection Committee would put Iowa in its field. Iowa almost defeated the Spartans on Jan. 10, losing 62-59 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa matches up better with Michigan State than it does with Ohio State or Michigan, partly because the Spartans struggle to score at times. Michigan State only shot 40.4 percent from the field in its only meeting with Iowa in the regular season and just 13-of-21 from the free throw line.
It seems Iowa’s non-conference schedule is either to blame or deserves part of the credit for the team being in its current position, depending on your point of view. The naysayers say Iowa’s non-conference schedule, which has been ranked below 300th nationally, is what’s holding the team back more than anything else.
And while that could be the case, McCaffery sees it differently. He believes the non-conference schedule served the dual purpose of building confidence among the players and building up wins.
He plans to strengthen the non-conference beginning with next season, but this season was more a case of walking before running.
“I would say we would probably spend more time thinking that through,” McCaffery said. “Last year we did what I said, and that is to put a schedule together that we thought we could handle with the young guys, get them winning as we moved into the Big Ten.”
McCaffery’s approach makes sense because his team, with three freshmen playing keys roles, was vulnerable during the non-conference portion of the schedule. Iowa could’ve piled up a bunch of losses in December and then had virtually no margin for error in the Big Ten.
But this way, Iowa still has a fighter’s chance to make the NCAA Tournament thanks in part to those 11 non-conference victories. Some of the victories did nothing to help Iowa’s RPI, but losing more games against better opponents wouldn’t have helped, either.
“Then you say that was foolish, we should have never played them,” McCaffery said. “So it’s a very difficult thing to plan.”
Iowa enters the Big Ten Tournament as one of the deepest teams in the conference, even without injured point guard Mike Gesell. McCaffery used nine players for at least 14 minutes against against Nebraska on Saturday.
It should help to have more bodies trying to pull the team over the hump.
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball