ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Things got serious in the hours leading up to Iowa’s Big Ten basketball game at Michigan Wednesday.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas, one of the most respected voices in college basketball, tweeted that he’d just watched every Iowa game since December. He added, “The Hawkeyes are as good as ANYONE. This is an underrated team good enough to win it all.”
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg followed up on that Bilas tweet by saying he agreed, and called the Hawkeyes a Final Four team. Last week, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated called Iowa his Final Four darkhorse. Nationally, the Hawkeyes have become the flavor of the week.
Timeout. Let’s take a deep breath. An Iowa team hasn’t won a Big Ten regular-season title since 1978-79, when the Hawkeyes shared it with Purdue and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans. The Hawkeyes haven’t been invited to the NCAA Tournament since 2006. Making the jump to the Final Four seems a premature leap of faith in January.
Praise is nice, and a stroke to the ego. It’s also well-deserved for this unselfish team that has received little buzz beyond Iowa’s borders in the first three seasons of coach Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding efforts. It’s been a long, and impressive, climb from the Big Ten basement and four straight losing seasons.
But let’s try to win a Big Ten title first, and get back into the NCAA Tournament, and leave Final Four talk for March.
Iowa broke into the Associated Press Top 25 on Nov. 25, at 23rd — itsrst appearance in that poll since 2006. They’ve gone from 20th to 14th to 10th in the last three weeks. This is Iowa’s first Top 10 team in 12 seasons.
The reward for getting off to the program’s best start in 16 seasons? After years of being a Big Ten afterthought, the hunter has become the hunted. No. 21 Michigan got the first crack at this brand-spanking-new Top 10 team, and handed them a 75-67 defeat.
“You’ve just got to realize that every night you’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Iowa junior forward Aaron White said after his team fell to 4-2 in the Big Ten and 15-4 overall. “In the past, sometimes we might have been overlooked. But now we’re the big game on the schedule. We have that ranking next to us, and the national exposure. We’ve just got to come ready every night.”
Iowa is one of just four Big Ten teams lucky enough to have avoided consecutive Big Ten losses so far. Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota are the other three.
That will be put to the test at 11 a.m. Saturday when the Hawkeyes play at Northwestern. The Wildcats have won three of four games since a 93-67 drubbing at Iowa on Jan. 9.
“That game means nothing,” Iowa senior forward Melsahn Basabe said of the victory over Northwestern earlier this month. “They’re doing well right now. They play very hard. They defend well. Those guys are going to battle to protect their home floor. And the No. 10 team is coming to them.”
Before Wednesday’s game, McCaffery said he was aware of what Bilas had said. So was White, who saw it on Twitter.
“You know me,” White said. “It doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind it, one way or another. If doesn’t affect my game, how I work out, how hard I play. They didn’t write about us the first two years I was here, and that didn’t affect us either.”
White, for one, says bring on the publicity.
“I think it’s well deserved,” White said. “We didn’t play our game (against Michigan), but I think we have a special team here. This is a little bump in the road, but we have to get right back after it. Saturday is huge, because it’s the next one, and Northwestern is playing well.”
Senior guard Devyn Marble has heard the praise, too.
But he said handling the publicity is not an issue.
“We still play as if we have something to prove, really,” Marble said. “We haven’t been that team that year in and year out always has that spotlight on us.”
So it’s time for the Hawkeyes to put the Michigan loss behind them, and lock in on Northwestern.
“The next game is the biggest game, the most important one,” Marble said.
By early afternoon Saturday, we’ll know if that was idle chat or words to live by.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter from Evanston on Saturday: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball