CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Nine Big Ten basketball teams have lost at least five league games. And we’re only halfway through the conference season.
That’s why No. 15 Iowa’s 81-74 victory at Illinois was significant. Yes, it was the Hawkeyes’ first victory in Champaign since 1999. More importantly, it gave coach Fran McCaffery’s team some wiggle room when the second half of Big Ten play starts Tuesday against No. 24 Ohio State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa is third in the league standings at 6-3. Only Michigan and Michigan State are ahead of the Hawkeyes. No one else in the Big Ten has a winning league record. Iowa plays five of its last nine Big Ten games at home.
Thanks to the win at Illinois, the opportunity is right there for the Hawkeyes to finish in the Big Ten’s top three for the first time since 2005-06.
“I kind of like how we’ve separated ourselves,” Iowa’s Aaron White said after Saturday’s third Big Ten road victory of the season. “But we’re also chasing the two Michigan teams.”
One of them, the Wolverines, comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday.
With two home games this week in front of two sellout crowds, Iowa (17-5 overall) has two chances to increase that margin for error, stay in the title chase and improve its NCAA Tournament credentials.
Gaining that conference standings wiggle room was in jeopardy until the Hawkeyes finished off Illinois with a 15-4 run.
“I don’t really look at that,” McCaffery said of the standings. “I understand why everybody does. For me, it’s just on to the next. Ohio State. We’re going to end up where we end up. I don’t want to look at the record, and where we stand, and where we’re ranked. I don’t care about that. It’s Ohio State. They just beat Wisconsin on the road.”
In the eight Big Ten games played between Tuesday and Saturday, six road teams won. That included No. 7 Michigan State’s 71-69 overtime victory Tuesday that ended the Hawkeyes’ home-court winning streak at 20 games.
“I love playing at home,” White said. “We’ve got to protect home court. Last Tuesday hurt us. But we’ll be ready to go (this) Tuesday.”
McCaffery questioned his team’s toughness after that loss to the Spartans. Saturday’s stretch drive was the answer he was looking for. Asked after the game if he liked the toughness his team played with in the last 5 minutes, McCaffery smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “Very much so.”
After getting drubbed by Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena a week ago, 76-50, Northwestern won at Wisconsin and Minnesota. Penn State won at Ohio State. The Buckeyes won at Wisconsin. And then Iowa won at Illinois.
“Top to bottom, there’s no league like this one,” McCaffery said. “And you’d better be ready every night.”
Nine league games down, nine to go.
“I’m not really looking behind us,” Iowa’s Devyn Marble said. “I’m just trying to get back to the top. This is a tough conference. A grind. It really is. Every night you’ve got to bring it.”
Iowa hasn’t won more than three Big Ten road games since the 2003-04 season. The Hawkeyes’ next three league road games – at Penn State, Indiana and Minnesota – are winnable but dangerous. The final road game is more than dangerous. It’s at Michigan State, where Iowa has lost 17 straight.
As a freshman, Marble played for a Hawkeye team that won four Big Ten games. That was also McCaffery’s rookie season at Iowa. Eight league wins followed in Marble’s sophomore season, then nine as a junior.
Now the Hawkeyes have put themselves in position to be one of four teams to get a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. And with each victory from here on out, that elusive NCAA Tournament bid gets closer and closer.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball