Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar talk about the Iowa basketball team's latest struggles as the Hawkeyes get ready to face Michigan.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — One win wouldn’t cure all the pain of letting a Big Ten Conference championship slip away, but for Iowa’s slumping basketball team, it would mean a lot.
The 15th-ranked Hawkeyes will be trying to avoid their first five-game losing streak in over five years when they end the regular season at 7 p.m. Saturday at Michigan.
“This is our low point,” senior guard Anthony Clemmons said after Tuesday’s 81-78 home loss to No. 11 Indiana. “But we’ll continue to build and fight and make steps to be better.”
Beyond Iowa wanting to taste victory for the first time in 20 days, there's major incentive to improve its seeding in next week’s Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament to follow.
Iowa (20-9, 11-6 Big Ten) can’t do any better than a No. 4 seed March 9-13 in Indianapolis and — if you assume a home win Saturday by surging Michigan State (25-5, 12-5) over Ohio State (19-11, 11-6) — can’t do worse than a No. 7. It's a precipitous fall either way from being 10-1 in the Big Ten just 3½ weeks ago. But there’s a mountain of difference between 4 and 7.
Here are the four likely landing spots for Iowa, assuming Michigan State wins on senior day against a team it recently beat by 19 in Columbus:
Iowa gets No. 4 seed: This would mean a double bye — not playing until Friday — and the best-case scenario, obviously, for the Hawkeyes. Of course Iowa needs to win Saturday, coupled with two outcomes: Maryland (24-6, 12-5) handing outright conference champ Indiana (24-6, 14-3) its first home loss of the year Sunday afternoon; and host Purdue (23-7, 11-6) beating Wisconsin (20-10, 12-5) on Sunday night. If those three things happen, Purdue would likely be Iowa’s 1:30 p.m. Friday opponent as the No. 5 seed.
Iowa gets No. 5 seed: If either Purdue or Maryland loses Sunday, this is where Iowa lands with a win at Michigan (20-10, 10-7). That would mean a 1:30 p.m. Thursday game, likely against the Minnesota-Illinois winner, with either Purdue or Maryland waiting as the No. 4 seed on Friday.
Iowa gets No. 6 seed: This happens with an Iowa loss coupled with a Wisconsin win at Purdue. The sixth seed would likely play the Nebraska-Rutgers winner at roughly 8 p.m. Thursday, with the Badgers waiting as the No. 3 seed.
Iowa gets No. 7 seed: An Iowa loss and Purdue home win would drop the Hawkeyes below Ohio State based on tiebreakers. This would create a third matchup with Penn State at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, with No. 2 seed Michigan State waiting on Friday. The Spartans, who were swept by Iowa early in the conference season, are the team to avoid as they're playing as well as any team in America.
Playing for a better tournament seed isn’t something Iowa coach Fran McCaffery uses as a talking point, though.
“I’d be shocked if the players didn’t know about it; you guys typically will bring it up,” he said. “I don’t really look at it that way. I just try to figure out how we’re going to beat Michigan.”
The other big deal for Iowa about Saturday’s game at Michigan: It is probably the only way Des Moines remains in play as a possible first- and second-round NCAA destination for the Hawkeyes. They would need to be a top-four seed to even have a chance, and as of Friday they were projected as a No. 5 by CBS’ Jerry Palm and a No. 6 by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
High Michigan motivation
Both Palm and Lunardi have the Wolverines in their “Last Four In” for the NCAA Tournament. So John Beilein’s squad will likely come out with a lot of energy, with a lot at stake on senior night in Crisler Arena.
That said, none of the players in Michigan’s highly touted “Fresh Five” recruiting class — Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert — will be playing Saturday. The first three are in the NBA, and Albrecht and LeVert are out with injuries.
Ball-handling guard Derrick Walton Jr. has become the Wolverines’ top threat, averaging 12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Like Indiana, Michigan has multiple players proficient at shooting the 3-pointer: It ranks 13th nationally with a 39.8 percent success rate from long range.
“I think that’s a great analogy (to Indiana),” McCaffery said. “They run, they execute well at half court. John’s offense has always been difficult to guard, as long as I’ve known him. It’s all reads and cuts, and those guys execute it well.”
A rotation change
Iowa freshman Christian Williams has officially moved past Brady Ellingson in McCaffery’s nine-man rotation, something that was solidified after the 6-foot-6 guard scored a career-high eight points in 12 minutes against Indiana.
“Early in the year if I had gotten in that early, I probably would have been a little bit tentative, a little bit scared,” Williams said Tuesday. “But tonight, I felt really confident. I felt like I belonged.”
McCaffery agrees. For most of the season, redshirt freshman Ellingson “was a little farther ahead of Christian in terms of knowing what we’re doing. So as time’s gone by, Christian’s got it all figured out and he’s playing really well. He’ll definitely get quality playing time.”
Williams’ growth in learning the 1, 2 and 3 positions were key in his promotion. Though he is viewed as the likely point guard next year with Clemmons and Mike Gesell gone, McCaffery wants to play him at all three spots because of his 6-11 wingspan and scoring ability.
“It’s a lot harder than you think. He’s really worked at it. I’m proud of him,” McCaffery said.
Speaking of the future
There’s encouraging news on Dale Jones, whose season was limited to six games after December knee surgery.
The 6-foot-7 junior college transfer was expected to bring 3-point shooting and rebounding to this year’s team, but that’ll have to wait until 2016-17. McCaffery said he expects Jones to be playing again in three to four months.
“He’s running. He’s doing stairs. It looks good. There’s not been any setbacks, and that’s what you worry about in a situation like that,” McCaffery said. “Does he push too hard and have a setback? Did something go wrong the first time he tried to do the steps? … There hasn’t been any of that stuff. So I feel really good about him, and his attitude has been fabulous.”
NO. 15 IOWA (20-9, 11-6 BIG TEN) AT MICHIGAN (20-10, 10-7)
When, where: 7 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Joe Davis, Jon Crispin).
Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius Channel 93, XM Channel 195.
Game notes: Iowa will try to build on two positive numbers in Tuesday’s 81-78 loss to Indiana. The Hawkeyes got 27 bench points, most since Feb. 3, and committed single-digit turnovers (nine) for the first time since Feb. 14. … Iowa center Adam Woodbury has averaged 11.4 rebounds over his last 12 games. He trails Michigan State’s Matt Costello by two rebounds for the Big Ten-games-only lead. … Saturday marks the first time since 2010 that Iowa will finish the regular season on the road.