IOWA CITY, Ia. — After Iowa’s 2012-13 basketball season had ended in the championship game of the NIT at Madison Square Garden in New York City, this is what I wrote looking ahead to this year:
“Anything less than the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2006 will be considered an underachieving season.”
Now, 31 games into the 2013-14 season, those words have a hollow feel to them.
While that elusive NCAA bid is probably a lock, all doubt will be removed with a victory Thursday over Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
But “underachieving” will be a word this team will carry with it to Bankers Life Fieldhouse this week. Five losses in the past six games have the Hawkeyes 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten — the identical marks they carried into last year’s Big Ten Tournament.
“The record might be the same, but the feel of the team is different,” forward Aaron White said. “We’ll be in the NCAAs. Last year it was, ‘What do we need? One more win? Two? Three?’”
Last year’s team was desperately trying to make a late-season stretch run to get in the NCAA Tournament, winning six of its final eight regular-season games. This year’s team is holding on to that bid by their collective fingernails.
“You can always look back and say, ‘Oh boy, we obviously didn’t want to lose five of our last six,’ and we lost some games that we could have won,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “But every coach in the country, every player in the country, looks back at this point and says, ‘Wow, if we could have just had that one and that one.’ That’s just human nature, I think.”
McCaffery calls last season’s team and this season’s team — one that played more competitive nonconference and Big Ten schedules — dramatically different.
“The fact that we ended up with identical records is just a coincidence in that sense,” McCaffery said.
Last season’s team was never ranked. This season’s team spent 15 consecutive weeks in The Associated Press Top 25, with a one-week occupancy in the top 10.
Last season’s team was considered an NCAA longshot when conference play started. But it would have happened if not for a 0-7 record against ranked teams or seven losses to Big Ten teams by four points or less or in overtime. The last one, a three-point loss to Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, might have gotten the Hawkeyes over the NCAA hump.
A deep run in the NIT was a nice consolation prize. And with Eric May the only player gone from that team, and Iowa adding Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, expectations for this season were off the charts.
Adding fuel to the fire was a ton of national recognition, painting the Hawkeyes in glowing March colors. The final six home games were sold out. The table was set for a fast finish. Fans started to drink the national buzz-flavored Kool-Aid. Maybe, too, did the players.
“I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility,” McCaffery said.
Instead, the Hawkeyes head to the Big Ten Tournament with the same challenge as a year ago. Sixth place in the Big Ten standings, the No. 6 seed, facing No. 11 seed Northwestern in Thursday’s first round. And No. 3 seed Michigan State waits, for a second straight season, for the winner.
A team that McCaffery called fragile after Saturday’s loss to Illinois has a chance to rediscover some good vibes against a Northwestern team it defeated in both regular-season meetings by 26 points. White said no one will be overlooking the Wildcats.
“If we had won five of six, and got to play someone we had beat, then that might happen,” White said. “But there should be absolutely no reason that anybody overlooks Northwestern, the way we are playing. We’ve got to get back to business and prove on the floor we’re the same team we were a month or six weeks ago.”
Getting another shot at Michigan State, a team that has eliminated Iowa from the last three Big Ten tournaments, would be an opportunity for gratification and momentum for the road ahead. But in a late-season drive with plenty of detours, White is right. This team hasn’t earned the right to look past anybody.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him all week at Indianapolis on Twitter, @ByRickBrown.