Hawkeyes are hunting elusive Sweet 16; Tennessee stands in the way

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — You didn’t need to tell anyone in the Iowa locker room Saturday how long it’s been since the men’s basketball team has reached the sweet spot of the NCAA Tournament.

That’s the goal immediately in front of the Hawkeyes, who are eight-point underdogs against No. 5 Tennessee in Sunday’s CBS-televised 11:10 a.m. game at Nationwide Arena.

It’s been 20 years since the Hawkeyes have played in a Sweet 16 in this hallowed tournament — around the time most of the current players were born. Since then, 87 different programs have experienced a Sweet 16, from familiar brands like Duke to something called Florida Gulf Coast, which sounds like a made-up college in a trashy Hollywood movie.

Iowa has had three chances to join that list. And failed each time.

Point guard Jordan Bohannon is openly embracing his first crack at a Sweet 16.

“That’s the goal we had coming in — that we wanted to change this program,” Bohannon said Saturday, speaking for his junior class of Hawkeyes. “It took a little more time than we thought. We thought sophomore year was the year.

“We got our first win out of the way (Friday over Cincinnati). We put ourselves in position to change history again. We did that a lot this year.”

Iowa (23-11) is the 10 seed in the South Regional. Tennessee (30-5) is seeded second.

The Iowa Hawkeyes know the recent history and are determined to change it. The team seeks its first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years when it faces fifth-ranked Tennessee on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

This has not been a good spot for the Hawkeyes under coach Fran McCaffery. His previous two NCAA Tournament teams reached the second round only to be paired with a 2 seed. The Hawkeyes lost both games by identical 87-68 scores — to Gonzaga in 2015 and eventual national champion Villanova in 2016.

“Tennessee’s got the same caliber,” said senior forward Nicholas Baer, the only current Hawkeye who played in that 2016 game. “They’ve got a team that can win the national championship. They’re a very balanced team and they play their way. They don’t try to be anybody that they’re not.”

Both teams are deep, with plenty of scoring options. Both like to push the pace. A score in the 90s would suit everyone who will participate in this NCAA second-round contest.

“Anybody who loves basketball, it’s going to be a great matchup,” Baer promised.

More previews to Iowa's game against Tennessee:

Tennessee advanced by holding off Colgate 77-70 here Friday. It was the second consecutive game the Volunteers have been scorched for 15 3-pointers.

Iowa is coming off a 79-72 win in which it went 11-for-22 from the arc. Another showing like that could be the equalizer against a Tennessee team that was ranked in the top-10 all season.

“Every time I step on the floor, I'm trying to shoot as much as I can. So I'm looking forward to (Sunday),” said Bohannon who is one 3-pointer away from tying Jeff Horner’s school record of 262 in a career. “Hopefully, I can get a lot of 3s off.

“We have a lot of shooters on this team. A lot of times, we have five shooters out there. So it's really difficult for teams to play us.”

Tennessee features two of the fastest guards in the nation in Jordan Bone (13.5 points, 5.9 assists per game) and Lamonte Turner (10.7, 3.8).

Its best players are forwards Grant Williams, the Southeastern Conference player of the year who is almost impossible to handle inside (18.7 points per game on 56.6-percent shooting), and Admiral Schofield, who roams the court to find his spots (16.3 ppg, 41.2 percent from 3).

Kyle Alexander, at 6-foot-11, is the enforcer inside, with 60 blocked shots.

There are no weak spots on this Volunteer team.

Iowa, coming off arguably its best second half of the season to dispatch seventh-seeded Cincinnati, needs to be even better Sunday. And for the full 40 minutes.

Hawkeye forward Tyler Cook knows he and center Luka Garza will have their hands full with Williams, Schofield and Alexander. Baer and Ryan Kriener will be summoned off the bench to help.

But Cook pointed out that, playing in the Big Ten Conference, he sees talented big men night in and night out. This is the first SEC team the Hawkeyes have faced since … Tennessee in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The Volunteers won that game in overtime.

“They’re physical, strong guys — and skilled guys, too. It will be another challenge for us, and we always respond well to a challenge,” Cook said of battling Tennessee’s front court.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better. We’re in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, playing one of the best teams in the country. This is what you grow up dreaming about. I love going against the best people I can go against. It brings out the best in me.”

Iowa’s stretch of futility in second-round NCAA Tournament games actually goes back 30 years, not 20. The Hawkeyes are 1-9 when getting this far since reaching the 1988 Sweet 16.

Bohannon, a native of Marion, knows all about it. He is aware of what it would mean to all Hawkeye fans to see a team reach the second weekend of this tournament. He has been open for two years that the ultimate goal is to get to the third weekend.

But first things first.

“I had that quote early,” Bohannon said. “’If people aren’t laughing at your dreams, then they’re not big enough.’”

The dream is certainly big enough. Now, we’ll find out if the Hawkeyes are.

Hawkeye teams that have had a chance to get to the Sweet 16 since 1988:

1989: lost to North Carolina State 102-96 (double overtime)

1991: lost to Duke 85-70 (eventual national champion)

1992: lost to Duke 75-62 (eventual national champion)

1993: lost to Wake Forest 84-78

1996: lost to Arizona 87-73

1997: lost to Kentucky 75-69 (eventual national runner-up)

1999: beat Arkansas 82-72 (lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in Sweet 16)

2001: lost to Kentucky 92-79

2015: lost to Gonzaga 87-68

2016: lost to Villanova 87-68 (eventual national champion)