IOWA CITY, Ia. — Asked Saturday night if he thought his team was safely in the NCAA Tournament, Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery’s answer was barely audible.
“I don’t know,” McCaffery said, head down. “I’m not Joe Lunardi.”
Lunardi, ESPN’s noted bracketologist, still has Iowa in the NCAA field. But after a 66-63 loss to Illinois in the regular-season finale, the fifth in six games, one thing is crystal clear: This is a Hawkeye team just good enough to break your heart.
Saturday’s script has been followed many times this season. Up one inside of three minutes left against Villanova. Up five with 1 minute 26 seconds remaining at Iowa State. Up one against Wisconsin with less than 40 seconds to play. Two cracks to score the winning basket at the end of regulation against Michigan State. The Hawkeyes lost them all.
Eleven losses this season. Ten of them by seven points or less.
Lunardi had Iowa a No. 4 seed after it won at No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 12. National experts were even mentioning a McCaffery’s fourth Hawkeye team as a Final Four threat.
Now, barring a big run in this week’s Big Ten Tournament, it’s looking very much like the dreaded No. 8 seed against No. 9 seed draw in the NCAAs, with a No. 1 seed waiting for the winner. Wichita State in St. Louis, perhaps?
“I’m very pleased with a lot of things that we’ve done,” McCaffery said. “It’s a long journey. You have some great points and mediocre points. And you have areas where you go in the other direction, and then you’ve just got to keep working.”
Yes, Iowa has won 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004-05 and 2005-06. The Hawkeyes were ranked for the first time since the 2005-06 season. Sitting at No. 10 the third week of January, they’ll drop out of the Associated Press poll Monday after a 15-week stay. They won four Big Ten road games for the first time since 2003-04 and three in a row on the road for the first time since 1997-98.
But all that rings hollow now. Wisconsin and Ohio State both lost five of six in one stretch. But those swoons came in the middle of the season, and both were able to reverse fortunes. Iowa’s dip came at the worst possible time, the end of the season.
McCaffery’s first three teams made significant improvement during the course of a season. This team has not.
Iowa took a 20-game home-court winning streak into the Jan. 28 game against Michigan State. No. 21 would have set a school record in the 32-year-old facility. Iowa announced before the game that the final six home dates were sold out. The Hawkeyes lost four of those six.
Iowa played one game in 13 days after destroying Big Ten champion Michigan at home on Feb. 8. They played six games in the next 15 days. And lost five of them. Iowa entered a Feb. 22 game against Wisconsin one game behind leaders Michigan and Michigan State in the loss column, with no back-to-back losses on the resume.
“I’m frustrated, and I’m confused about why we’re not playing like we were at the beginning of the year,” Aaron White said late Saturday. “Not even at the beginning of the year, but two-and-a-half or three weeks ago. We’ve just got to play with a sense of urgency. We’ve got to play better defense. We’ve just got to pick it up, man.”
A lack of defense and rebounding have defined this slide. Over the last six games, teams have shot 50 percent or better in nine of 12 halves. That happened just four times in 24 halves over the first 12 games.
McCaffery likes to switch between man-to-man and zone defenses. But down the stretch, Iowa has struggled to stop dribble penetration in the man. And since the Wisconsin game, the zone has been an opponent’s best friend. Iowa’s last six foes have shot 51.9 percent from the field, and 42.8 percent from 3. In the first dozen games, Big Ten foes shot 41.3 percent from the field, and 31.7 percent from 3.
And after getting outrebounded just once in the first 12 Big Ten games, Iowa has lost the battle of the boards in five of the last six. When teams are scoring at a high rate and controlling the glass, it’s hard for an up-tempo team like the Hawkeyes to run.
Iowa had two fast-break points against the Illini. The Big Ten’s highest-scoring team was held to a league-low 63 points, and looked sluggish, tired and out of rhythm. The Hawkeyes entered the game with a 17-0 record when holding foes under 70 points, and a 30-game winning streak at home against unranked opponents.
Both streaks start over. The Big Ten Tournament provides an opportunity to start over, too. And now it’s an opportunity to change a what-could-have-been season into something more.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter (@ByRickBrown) from the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis this week.