CHICAGO — Zach McCabe sat in a corner of Iowa’s emotionally charged locker room, alone with his thoughts.
The look of agony on his face told the story of what had just transpired over 40 minutes inside the United Center, a game with NCAA implications for the Hawkeyes. A 10-point lead with less than 9 minutes to play had turned into a 59-56 loss to Michigan State in Friday’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
“I mean, it just sucks,” the junior said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
Now, a team that is 21-12 overall — but lost seven times by four points or less or in overtime — likely has an NIT future.
“If we’re playing in the NIT, whatever, we’re just going out to win it,” said McCabe, who was on an 11-win team as a freshman. “That’s it. Luckily we get to keep playing basketball, no matter what.”
Both the NCAA and NIT fields will be announced today. Iowa has put in a bid to host the NIT, and Carver-Hawkeye Arena is available to host the first three rounds. All three are played on campus sites before the tournament moves to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the semifinals April 2.
According to the NIT’s website, first-round games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday; second round-games are Thursday through March 25; the quarterfinals are on March 26 or 27. Iowa could play around an NCAA women’s regional March 24 and 26 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Any team that wins a regular-season conference title and isn’t selected for the NCAA Tournament will automatically get an NIT bid. The rest of the field will be selected on an at-large basis. The field will then be seeded, with the higher-seeded team in each of the four regionals having the first option to host.
“I think we’re deserving of an NCAA bid, “ Iowa’s Aaron White said. “But if we don’t get that, we’ll win the NIT. That’s got to be the mindset. But I believe we’re deserving of that (NCAA) bid no matter what ESPN or the numbers say. Sometimes you’ve got to look at the team, look at how they’re playing, and you compare them to the other teams.”
Iowa ended the season winning six of its last eight regular-season games, the best finish since 1995-96, and then went 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament.
“I definitely believe Iowa is a team that deserves to be in the tournament because of how they have played and what they have done and how they played the last eight or nine games,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his eighth-ranked team escaped Friday.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery also campaigned for his team, and left no doubt that he thought officiating played a role in the Spartans’ comeback. Coaches inside Iowa’s locker room felt that the game was called differently in the second half than the first half, and that Michigan State’s players were allowed to used hard hand checks with both hands to knock Iowa’s guards out of rhythm and disrupt the offense.
Chief ballhandlers Devyn Marble, Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell combined for 12 turnovers. Eight came in the second half. Iowa shot nine free throws in the first half, just three the second half.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” McCaffery said. “I’ve coached in a lot of games. I’ve coached in a lot of tournaments. I’ve coached favorites. I’ve coached underdogs. This team deserved a better fate.”
Instead, that fate will likely be spelled NIT instead of NCAA.
“We’re right on the edge of jumping from where we are to being an elite team in this league,” White said. “That’s the next stepfrom here.”
Record: 21-12 overall (9-9 in the Big Ten)
RPI: 77, as of Saturday afternoon, according to realtimerpi.com
Key wins (with RPI): Minnesota (33), Wisconsin (34), Illinois (40)
Key losses: Purdue (130), Virginia Tech (176)
Notable: Iowa lost seven Big Ten games by four points or less or in overtime.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball