Leistikow: Locked-in Hawkeyes getting hot when it matters most

Chad Leistikow
Iowa celebrates s 59-57 win over Wisconsin in an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, March 2, 2017, in Madison, Wis.

MADISON, Wis. — Before Thursday’s game at the Kohl Center, I was thinking about “bad losses” — the ones to opponents outside the top 100 in RPI that take a sledgehammer to an NCAA Tournament resume like Iowa's.

After Thursday’s game — a stunning 59-57 Iowa win at No. 22 Wisconsin, in which it rallied from nine points down in the final 3 minutes, 40 seconds — I was thinking about “bad losses” a little differently.

In fact, the one that happened for Iowa on Dec. 3 to Nebraska-Omaha (with an RPI of 142 entering Thursday) might’ve turned out to be its best loss of the season.

It was that game, when Iowa let up 98 points at home to an eventual third-place Summit League team, that a wake-up call was received.

“We've played essentially 10 games if you count the scrimmage and the exhibition game,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said then after his team fell to 3-5. “We haven't defended in any of them.”

Players said communication, trust and effort were missing.

Thursday, in front of 17,287 fans at a venue that had seen the home team win 20 of its last 21 games, Jordan Bohannon’s 3-pointer with 9 seconds left was the biggest moment.

But Iowa’s maligned defense was the biggest reason it took down one of the Big Ten Conference’s best teams.

And suddenly, the Hawkeyes are a team to watch, maybe inching closer to that NCAA Tournament bubble, as the days dwindle until Selection Sunday.

“We were pretty connected defensively, which you have to be to beat this team,” McCaffery said. “This is a team that is typically plus-8 on the glass, and we were plus-10 tonight (with a 37-27 advantage).”

The last time I covered a game in the Kohl Center in 2014 (the Adam Woodbury/Dan Dakich eye-poke game), the Hawkeyes forced one turnover — a meaningless shot-clock violation in the final moments — in an 82-50 loss.

Thursday, this Iowa group forced 13 turnovers, including nine in the first half, and allowed 35 fewer points. Not bad for the league's worst scoring defense.

Every time Naismith Award semifinalist Ethan Happ received an interior pass, two Hawkeyes harassed him.

Nicholas Baer was not only a 3-point marksman (4-for-4 in the first half), his hands were everywhere on defense. He would finish with three of Iowa’s nine steals.

The only Big Ten team to hold Wisconsin to fewer points than 57 this season? Purdue, which clinched the outright Big Ten title Thursday night thanks to the Hawkeyes’ win.

"It’s always important when you’re looking at NCAA Tournament teams: Who’s hot right now?” Baer said. “And … we’re hot right now.”

If the NCAA Selection Committee does give Iowa a look sometime in the next 10 days — and it very well could and should — it probably won’t see 98-89 to Omaha as a good loss.

But it might’ve been the one that changed Iowa’s season the most.

The defense on Thursday was crisp. In fact, it was clutch, too, in setting up the furious finish.

Ahmad Wagner’s steal from Nigel Hayes and lay-in — the sophomore’s only shot attempt of the game — with 1:35 left was a game-changer, cutting it to 57-56.

The Kohl Center got tense.

Suddenly, Iowa was in it.

Mar 2, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Zak Showalter (3) attempts to pass as Iowa Hawkeyes forward Tyler Cook (top) and guard Jordan Bohannon (3) defend at the Kohl Center.

Soon thereafter, Bohannon and the fearless Hawkeyes won it.

And why not a hard NCAA Tournament look? The Hawkeyes (17-13 overall, 9-8 Big Ten) have been fighting a shaky RPI all season; it was 90 entering Thursday, and no at-large team with an RPI worse than 71 has made the 68-team NCAA field.

The Hawkeyes might jump into the 70s with a win over RPI-33 Wisconsin. They must beat Penn State on Sunday, and if they do, they’ll be an above-.500 conference team with wins against the (current) top three teams in the league: Purdue, Maryland and Wisconsin – the latter two coming on the road since Saturday.

Peter Jok, Iowa’s lone senior, agrees with me.

“Oh yeah, for sure (they should look at Iowa),” Jok said. “We’ve beaten the top teams in the Big Ten. Besides our record, I think our resume’s pretty good. We beat some really good teams. But we can only focus on one game at a time right now."

This team has certainly come a long way since the helpless loss to Nebraska-Omaha.

“Just growth,” said freshman Tyler Cook, who by the way missed that Omaha game with a finger injury. “That was early in the season. At that point, we knew we had a lot to get better at. We still do now, but it’s all you can ask for, is improvement.”

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.