Leistikow: Hawkeyes have one-year NIT permission slip

Chad Leistikow

The biggest Iowa basketball lesson learned over the past three weeks: Expectations always frame the narrative.

When Iowa lost at home to Illinois on Feb. 21, it seemed like a pipe dream that the young Hawkeyes could work their way into consideration for a bid to the National Invitation Tournament — also known as the NIT.

Now, after a first-round exit in the Big Ten Conference Tournament halted an eye-opening four-game win streak, an NIT bid feels like an unwanted consolation prize.

NCAA Tournament days should be ahead for Jordan Bohannon (3) and the Hawkeyes, but not likely this year.

You could hardly blame Hawkeye fans if they needed some time to cope with Thursday night’s 95-73 loss to 10th-seeded Indiana in Washington, D.C.

Counting football and men’s basketball, they’ve pretty much been on a roller coaster of emotions for three straight years.

I was thinking about this: In the seven postseason games with the most at stake in those three years, Hawkeye fans had high hopes crushed.

In football: The TaxSlayer Bowl rout to Tennessee; the Big Ten Championship heartbreak vs. Michigan State; the Rose Bowl bloodbath against Stanford; and the Outback Bowl drubbing to Florida.

In basketball: Blowout losses to Gonzaga and Villanova in back-to-back years with a Sweet 16 berth on the line; and now Thursday’s flat performance with an NCAA Tournament bid potentially dangling in front of them.

Speaking of the NCAA Tournament: Hey, you never know. Ask Tulsa, which wasn’t on any bracketology radars last year but ended up in the First Four in Dayton. But if the committee chose Iowa for an at-large spot, it would be setting a new precedent. Iowa’s RPI after the Indiana loss dropped from 72 to 79; and no team has ever gotten an at-large NCAA berth with an RPI worse than 71.

My advice: Keep your expectations — there's that word again — centered on the NIT.

That tourney’s 30-minute selection show will air at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU. I’d expect we’ll all learn then that Iowa is hosting a first-round NIT game on either Tuesday or Wednesday.

Will Hawkeye fans be excited?

The enthusiasm won’t be like Iowa vs. Dayton in 2012, a first-round NIT game that ex-player Aaron White recently said was the loudest he’d ever heard Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Back then, Iowa fans were starving for any glimpse of success after enduring three Todd Lickliter years, and Fran McCaffery gave it to them in his second season with a spot in the NIT.

That feeling was framed by — you guessed it — expectations.

I ran a Twitter poll Friday about this topic, and the results (with 1,138 votes) were showing a cautious appetite for more Hawkeye basketball: 45 percent said they were excited; 41 percent were interested but not invested; and 14 percent were moving on to football season.

Hawkeye fans are generally loyal, resilient and eternally hopeful.

I think if this team picks up an opening-round NIT win, enthusiasm has a chance to swell around a team that ranks No. 345 out of 351 nationally in experience, according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics.

I wrote last week after Iowa finished the regular season by beating Penn State that whatever happened the rest of the way would be icing on a successful season's cake.

But again, that opinion was crafted based on expectations.

Next year, 40 percent of the all-Big Ten’s freshman team (Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook) and the league’s Sixth Man of the Year (Nicholas Baer) will be returning.

Next year, the bar will be much higher for the Hawkeyes and McCaffery.

Next year, a fifth straight opening-game Big Ten Tournament loss and an NIT bid won’t cut it.

But this year, given the expectations, the NIT is OK.

It might even be fun.

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.