Big men Gabe Olaseni, Aaron White and Adam Woodbury discuss facing the 10th-ranked Longhorns in New York City. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral
NEW YORK, N.Y. – Bright lights, big city … and a giant opportunity that doesn't come along every day for the Iowa basketball program.
Starting Thursday at the 2K Classic in maybe the world's most famous sporting venue, a new narrative could begin for Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes.
Is this a program ready to re-enter the national conversation? Is this a nice team that may or may not win 20 games? What is this team's national perception?
"I don't mean this in a derogatory way," CBS Sports college basketball columnist Gary Parrish said, "but there isn't much of a national perception."
Thursday's 6 p.m. game on ESPN2 against No. 10 Texas gives Iowa its first chance to get a foot back in the national door. They got inside, briefly, a season ago. They crushed 10th-ranked Michigan by 18 points. A week later, they beat Penn State. They were in the top 10 nationally and battling for the Big Ten Conference lead.
Then, the bottom (in)famously fell out. Iowa lost seven of its final eight games. It got ugly – losses at home to Illinois, then to a pedestrian Northwestern outfit in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes were relegated to a First Four NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee. They lost that, too, after leading by 12.
The conversation went from "What a year" to "What happened?"
Now, eight months later, we're asking: Will Iowa bounce back?
The Hawkeyes are guaranteed two good opponents in New York. Win or lose Thursday, they play either No. 23 Syracuse or California on Friday.
"We've got to look at this as a clean slate," Iowa center Adam Woodbury said. "We've got a big opportunity going to New York to get two wins."
Perception can be as important as the win column in elevating a program.
Becoming a national attraction means big TV games, SportsCenter highlights … and a one-way ticket into the living rooms of potential recruits.
And when you get there, you don't want to flop. When Iowa accepted an invite to this tournament two years ago, McCaffery hoped his 2014-15 Hawkeyes would be well-positioned to compete with brand names like Syracuse and Texas.
"I felt we were going to have a good team," McCaffery said. "And I wanted to be able to take our program to New York City and other places.
"Everybody knows those four teams. It's a TV opportunity. It impacts your program in a lot of ways. In recruiting, for example, it also brings our program to the East Coast."
Parrish makes the case that there are four paths a program can take to achieve national prominence.
No. 1, become a big brand like Duke or Michigan State.
No. 2, develop a star individual attraction – like Doug McDermott was at Creighton.
No. 3, bring in top NBA prospects that capture a wider swath of TV viewers.
And No. 4, make a run in March.
"How many boxes does Iowa check?" Parrish said. "Probably none."
That's true. Nos. 1-3 aren't in the immediate future for Iowa. But No. 4 seems within reach. The Hawkeyes did break a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought in March, even though it wasn't the entry or exit they wanted.
ESPN analyst Sean Farnham, a former Pepperdine assistant coach who called Big Ten action the past two years while Iowa won 45 games, loves McCaffery and the foundation he's built since taking over for Todd Lickliter in 2010.
"The kids that are there, I know from talking to them, they love playing for him," Farnham said.
"The No. 1 thing you have to have with your kids, is you have to have commitment. You have to have belief. You could run the worst offense in the history of mankind. But if the players in that locker room believe it's the best, and they execute it to the best of their abilities, you're going to find success."
Farnham reinforced this to Hawkeye followers wanting more: It's important to remember where you came from.
When McCaffery took over, average attendance at 15,500-seat Carver-Hawkeye Arena had slumped to 9,550 fans a game. That number has gone up every year under McCaffery. It reached 14,976 a year ago, an increase of 57 percent over four years.
"The rebuilding process is starting to rally the fan base, starting to change the culture, getting players to believe and making an NCAA Tournament," Farnham said. "Those are all steps."
But there's one to go.
Iowa was 9-10 against Big Ten competition last year – but 2-9 in games decided by single digits.
So close. But not there yet.
"For Iowa to consistently be in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament and be relevant on the national level," Farnham said, "it has to win some of these closer games."
Pointing to March
Parrish asked a question. Would you rather win 27 games and lose in the round of 32 at the NCAA Tournament, or win 22 games and make the Sweet 16?
His point: November is nice. March is where perceptions are ultimately shaped.
Remember Virginia Commonwealth in 2011? Like Iowa, VCU was a First Four team. What everyone remembers is the Rams' amazing march to the Final Four. What everyone forgets is that five losses in their final eight pre-NCAA Tournament games sent them to the bubble.
The Rams changed the narrative.
"They get to the Final Four, and VCU is a program on the rise, and Shaka Smart has been offered every job since," Parrish said. "All because they got hot in a two-week period."
Put in a similar position a year ago, Iowa exited quietly.
And nationally, the Hawkeyes haven't been heard from since. But, a big win or two in New York, and they're in the Top 25 and showing up on iPhone scoreboard apps and cable highlight shows.
"If Iowa were to go and have a good showing in New York," Parrish said, "maybe you're saying they don't miss (Devyn) Marble as much as you thought. The collapse last year? Maybe they're learning from it."
Iowa looked terrific in beating Hampton by 34 and North Dakota State by 31 in Games 1 and 2, but few noticed. Neither game was traditionally televised – fans could watch on a web stream, if they could find it.
To change the narrative of a Division I basketball program, you have to first get back onto the national stage.
For the next two days, that's where Iowa will be.
"Once you sign up to be a Division I player, you want to be on TV," Iowa senior Gabe Olaseni said. "And there's no better stage than New York City on ESPN."
Reporter Chad Leistikow is covering the Hawkeyes in New York City. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
THURSDAY'S GAME: IOWA (2-0) VS. NO. 10 TEXAS (2-0)
Specifics — 2K Classic Semifinals: 6 p.m. CT, Madison Square Garden, New York City.
Following the game — TV: ESPN2. Radio: WHO-AM (1040), WMT-AM (600) and the Hawkeye network. Live scoring: www.hawkeyesports.com.
Preview — Iowa has averaged 88.5 points in its first two games, while Texas is allowing 51.5 points per game. ... Iowa's Anthony Clemmons scored in double figures once last season. He's done it twice (12 and 11) to start his junior season. ... The teams have met four times, always on a neutral floor. Each team is 2-2, with Texas beating Iowa 85-60 in the most recent meeting in Kansas City in 2009. ... The winner plays the Syracuse/Cal winner at 6:30 p.m. CT Friday on ESPN2. The two losing teams play at 4 p.m. CT on ESPNU.