Leistikow: NCAA or not, Iowa's season an entertaining success
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery thinks this Iowa basketball team is deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Whether he’s correct will be determined by nine men and one woman in a New York City conference room over the next week.
As usual during this time of year, you’ll hear people talking about bubbles, RPIs and strength of schedule.
But for just a few moments, let’s resist the urge to look too far ahead and reflect on just how far McCaffery’s seventh Hawkeye team has come. And how quickly the conversation has changed.
Sunday’s 90-79 home victory against Penn State marked Iowa’s fourth win in 13 days. Iowa had zero in the previous 15.
After a Feb. 21 home loss to Illinois just two weekends ago, most assumed even the NIT was fading out of view.
“It would’ve been real easy for people to jump off the bandwagon,” forward Nicholas Baer said after his 20-point, 10-rebound performance against the Nittany Lions, “sitting at 14-13 after we lost to Illinois at home.”
“If you look how we’ve played these last four games,” Baer continued, “we’re a top team in the country.”
Certainly, the Hawkeyes are one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten Conference.
They just capped a stretch where they won in a variety of ways.
By showing determination, battling back from an early 17-4 deficit to outlast Indiana in overtime.
By showing fearlessness, winning games at Maryland and Wisconsin, home to two of the league’s best teams and most hostile arenas.
And by showing firepower, running away from an equally young Penn State squad Sunday with 12-for-21 shooting from 3-point range.
A few Tuesdays ago, after the Indiana win, Baer was talking about this team making a push toward the NCAA Tournament.
Most probably rolled their eyes.
Since, he’s become the unofficial team spokesman for postseason number-crunching. Not to mention he's been just as hot as the Hawkeye team, having made 13 of his 19 attempts from 3-point range during the four-game winning streak.
“Winning four in a row, you want teams that are hot in the NCAA Tournament, teams that are playing their best basketball.” Baer said. “When you look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
Before this season, most people thought this could be an NIT team if things fell just right, with maybe an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament.
And that was before heavily hyped freshman Tyler Cook broke a finger and missed seven games. That was before a Nebraska team from Omaha (not Lincoln) sent the Hawkeyes to a 3-5 start. And that was before Big Ten scoring leader Peter Jok missed two games with a back injury (with up-and-down health since returning).
Yet here the Hawkeyes are, with a third consecutive season with double-digit conference wins in their pocket. That hasn’t happened here since the late-1980s.
McCaffery isn’t likely to be named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year. He certainly deserves to be in the conversation, though, with Minnesota's Richard Pitino, Northwestern's Chris Collins and Purdue's Matt Painter. The way he’s gotten his players to come together when the games matter most merits recognition.
I asked McCaffery afterward what about this team made him most proud through 31 games.
“How they grew up and how they stayed together,” McCaffery said. “We had some tough moments.”
He would add, “Every time there was adversity, we met that challenge.”
This team’s regular-season-ending surge is reminiscent of the 2014-15 Hawkeyes led by Aaron White. That team won its last six games after hitting the lowest of lows, a loss at Northwestern (then 1-11 in the Big Ten).
A few weeks later, that team would deliver the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in 14 years.
Will this squad have a chance to get to the Big Dance? Maybe even become McCaffery’s first Hawkeye team to reach the Sweet 16?
Getting there is a start, and the consensus surrounding Iowa is that there’s still work to do.
McCaffery said this: “I think we deserve to be in. But I think what you have to do is not focus on thinking about it and talking about it.”
He’s right. But on the outside, let the talk begin.
The NCAA Selection Committee, which convenes Tuesday in the Big Apple, will be looking at an Iowa team with (as of Sunday) an RPI of 74 and with a 5-8 record vs. top-50 RPI opponents.
Before this four-game win streak, Iowa's RPI was 119.
I think it's possible (but unlikely) that the surging Hawkeyes are in already. I think it's a little more possible that they win one game at this week's Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C., they're in.
I think two wins would take away most Selection Sunday sweating.
That won’t be easy. None of McCaffery’s six previous teams has won more than one.
“We want to increase our resume as much as we can for the NCAA Tournament," freshman Cordell Pemsl said. "Our goal is to go in there and keep this win streak alive and play to our full potential.”
My first piece of advice to Hawkeye fans: No matter what happens, just enjoy these moments and the rest of the ride. This wasn't expected. The 2016-17 season is already a success.
My second piece of advice: Don't count this team out of anything yet.
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.