CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Andrew Francis had a bounce in his step as he left the Iowa locker room Wednesday night.
“It’s always nice to go home,” said Francis, Iowa’s assistant basketball coach and a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Hawkeyes punched a homecoming ticket for their coach by beating Virginia 75-64 to advance to Tuesday’s 8 p.m. NIT semifinal against Maryland at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
No one will argue that the NCAA Tournament has more prestige, and is a preferred postseason landing spot. But when you consider where Iowa’s basketball program has been in recent seasons, it’s hard to argue that this NIT run won’t be more beneficial in the long run than a quick exit from the NCAAs.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery might not admit that publicly. He campaigned for his team to get an NCAA spot after a loss to Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa hasn’t been in the field since 2006, and getting back will bring further proof the once proud program is back.
The NCAA selection committee had the Hawkeyes one of the last half-dozen teams left out of the field. But consider this: Entering this season, the Hawkeyes had won two postseason games since 2001. This year’s team has three and could make that five with an NIT championship.
These games and practices will only speed up the growth curve of the returning players, who have logged 507 minutes of experience in the three NIT victories. When freshman center Adam Woodbury scored to give the Hawkeyes a 53-46 lead with just more than 7 minutes remaining, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said this:
“This is why you want to play as many games as you can if you’re Fran McCaffery. Because you can just see the growth in not only Woodbury but Devyn Marble … their whole program.”
Marble has been spectacular in this NIT run, averaging 23.5 points despite his unselfish play. He has 16 assists to just four turnovers during the run, with nine steals.
Woodbury had 10 points and eight rebounds Wednesday, his most productive game statistically since he had 12 points and eight rebounds in the fourth game of the season against Gardner-Webb.
“I took a step in the right direction,” the 7-foot-1 rookie said.
Woodbury played 25 games as a senior at Sioux City East. On Wednesday he made his 36th start of the season. It represents experience that will only make Woodbury a better player in the future.
“I am really thrilled with him,” McCaffery said.
Another freshman, point guard Anthony Clemmons, had been slumping of late. He broke through with his best game in some time against Virginia, scoring seven points and playing 11 second-half minutes after fellow freshman Mike Gesell re-injured his right foot in the first half and couldn’t return.
Zach McCabe also has taken his game up a notch, averaging 8.6 points, hitting several crucial 3-pointers and getting crunch-time minutes because of it.
Collectively, Wednesday’s game was a valuable learning experience for a team that had been just 2-8 on the road and struggled to close out games. Fourteen straight free throws in the final 3:09, and just one turnover in the last 8 minutes, shows growth and the value of multiple NIT games.
When the season started, Eric May’s mission was to make the NCAA Tournament. The lone scholarship senior on the team, he never made the Big Dance. But the Big Apple is a tasty consolation prize. May will conclude his career in Madison Square Garden.
“It’s the mecca,” said May, who had a smile stuck on his face after the game.
His teammates couldn’t be happier for him.
“That’s my guy, and I love him to death,” Marble said.
“It brings joy to me to see him having so much fun.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly list Adam Woodbury's high school.
NIT FINAL FOUR — Madison Square Garden, New York
6:00 — BYU (24-11) vs. Baylor (21-14
8:30 — Maryland (25-12) vs. Iowa (24-12)
8:00 — Semifinal winners
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball