Leistikow: A look at invigorated Iowa's NCAA Tournament chances

Chad Leistikow

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — In the tunnels of Maryland’s Xfinity Center on Saturday night, Iowa victory hero Jordan Bohannon made an admission that confirmed my suspicions.

That controversial loss 17 days earlier at Minnesota took an emotional bite out of this young Hawkeye team.

“That really ate at us. We really wanted to get that one, especially the roll we were on at that point,” Bohannon said. “That was a tough one, double overtime — probably our toughest of the year, emotionally and physically.”

That 101-89 loss — in which referee Chris Beaver botched two things on one late-in-regulation play, not awarding Brady Ellingson a timeout he called and calling a jump ball despite the defending Gopher standing out of bounds — was followed by two more losses.

In falling at Michigan State on the road, then Illinois at home, the Hawkeyes looked defeated and deflated.

Now, they look (and sound) invigorated.

Iowa's Nicholas Baer pokes away a steal as Tyler Cook (5) is set to defend during the Hawkeyes' 83-69 win at Maryland on Saturday.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of bad losses,” Bohannon said. “But we just kept fighting.”

A spirited rally earlier this week to beat Indiana in overtime led into Iowa’s most complete performance of the season: an 83-69 manhandling of No. 24 Maryland, in which Bohannon and fellow freshman Tyler Cook combined for 45 points.

Hitting 16 3-pointers and leaving no doubt certainly helped wash away much of that sour Minnesota finish.

But when you look at how things have played out, it’s still hard (for fans, anyway) to let go of that one.

The red-hot Gophers entered Sunday with the best NCAA RPI of all Big Ten Conference teams, at No. 16. Imagine how a win Feb. 8 at Williams Arena would have bolstered the Hawkeyes’ NCAA Tournament resume — especially considering Saturday’s win over then-RPI-22 Maryland boosted their RPI from 111 to 95.

Instead of 8-8 in conference play with two games to go, Iowa (16-13 overall) would be 9-7 with regular-season games remaining at Wisconsin on Thursday, and home vs. Penn State on Sunday.

But that’s a “what-if” scenario that, while notable, has to be flushed.

And though it took a few games, the Hawkeyes have seemed to do just that. Before Minnesota, they were riding a three-game winning streak — albeit over lower-half Big Ten teams — and playing their best team hoops of the year.

Now, it seems they’ve returned to that form.

After beating Indiana, players openly talked about looking ahead to the Big Ten Tournament, back here March 8-12 in Washington, D.C. They understood the importance of avoiding a bottom-four seed, which would mean trying to win five games in five days for the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery read those comments earlier this week and liked them, even if he doesn’t operate that way.

“Truthfully — and you know me; I don’t look at that at all — right now, I am just thinking about Wisconsin. And if you take care of your business, that will take care of itself,” McCaffery said. “I don’t think you want to start looking at that with three, four or five games to go. The fact that they were aware of it and won the last two — I applaud them for that. I’m proud of them.”

So: Can the Hawkeyes make the Big Dance without winning the Big Ten Tournament? Sure, it’s possible.

Winning both games this week would be a must, and methodical Wisconsin has always been a bad matchup for the up-tempo Hawkeyes.

The Badgers have won the last six meetings, and Iowa’s only win at the Kohl Center since 2000 came during McCaffery’s second season (Dec. 31, 2011).

A realistic scenario this week would put the Hawkeyes at 9-9 in conference play. Analytics website has Iowa losing by 12 at Wisconsin and winning by five against Penn State.

But let’s briefly touch on the three finishing scenarios:

  • Win both games. That would push Iowa to 18-13 overall, 10-8 in the Big Ten (in the wildest scenario, that would be good enough to tie for third) and probably somewhere in the 70s in NCAA RPI. The Hawkeyes would then be approaching the weak NCAA Tournament bubble with a lot on the line in D.C. If the Hawkeyes could win two more games there, could the committee leave out a surging 20-14 Iowa team with wins against five top-50 RPI teams (Iowa State, Michigan, Purdue, Maryland and Wisconsin)? If it’s that close, I do think Iowa could get some credit for the botched Minnesota finish.
  • Split the games. At 9-9 in league play, Iowa could finish as high as the sixth seed but more realistically would be a No. 7 or No. 8. That would mean a Thursday matchup against a team like Illinois (which swept Iowa) or Nebraska (split), with perhaps an outside shot of facing Ohio State or Indiana.
  • Lose both games. Entering Sunday, there were five teams below Iowa with six Big Ten wins, which leaves plenty of room to fall. The Hawkeyes would need help to avoid a Wednesday game in D.C. under this scenario — one they desperately want to avoid. We’ll know more after Thursday.

Bottom line: There’s a renewed buzz around this Hawkeye team, thanks to a resounding performance in College Park.

Making the NCAA Tournament, senior Peter Jok said, is "our mindset right now. We’re trying to click at the right time, get these last wins and get a good seed at the Big Ten Tournament."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.