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Hawkeye forward Cordell Pemsl says the team needs to learn to impose its will. Mark Emmert/Hawk Central

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Is it time to downgrade expectations for the Iowa men’s basketball team?

Maybe.

It is it time for urgency to kick in?

Absolutely.

Starting Saturday, the unimpressive-to-date Hawkeyes face three of their biggest games of the season in a six-day stretch.

Yes, I said it: big games in early December.

By losing to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State in the Caymans, then getting pummeled by mid-range ACC team Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Iowa has erased a big chunk of its margin for error for attaining its minimum goal: an NCAA Tournament bid.

Because of this season’s compressed calendar (with the Big Ten Tournament in New York City being a week earlier than usual), Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes open conference play Saturday against Penn State; then play Monday at Indiana; then next Thursday at rival Iowa State.

If Iowa can go 3-for-3 in that stretch? Then things are back on track.

If Iowa goes 0-for-3 or even 1-for-3? That’s troubling.

There’s either good news or bad news surrounding Iowa’s slow start, depending how you want to view it: The Big Ten looks worse top to bottom than a lot of people expected.

In the 19 years of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, there’s been no bigger one-sided scorecard than this year. Entering Thursday night’s Michigan State-Notre Dame finale, the ACC had 11 wins to the Big Ten’s two. (Congratulations, Purdue and Nebraska.)

Ouch.

And this hasn’t been a one-week collapse. Save the consensus top three in Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue, most of the Big Ten has underwhelmed.

Northwestern, which returns most key pieces from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, is 4-3 with a 36-point loss to Texas Tech.

Rebuilding Wisconsin is 3-4, an indicator that its amazing run of 16 straight top-four Big Ten finishes is in jeopardy.

Michigan (6-2) looked pedestrian in Wednesday's blowout loss, even if it was at North Carolina; Maryland (6-2) couldn't beat St. Bonaventure.

Penn State (6-2) is supposed to be better but is 0-for-2 in chances at quality wins.

Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State aren’t looking like breakthrough teams (yet) under first-year coaches.

And Rutgers and Nebraska are probably ... Rutgers and Nebraska.

So, while the Big Ten’s overall lack of strength could hurt the league's potential NCAA bubble teams come March, the Hawkeyes still can find their footing and make some noise.

A top-six Big Ten team with an 11-7 or 12-6 conference record isn't getting shut out of the Big Dance.

But the Hawkeyes must pick up the pace.

Penn State has a talented roster, but a Saturday afternoon (4 p.m.) game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is one Iowa should win.

Indiana lacks the size of Iowa and lost its season opener at home by 21 to Indiana State. But Assembly Hall is never a picnic.

Then there’s Iowa State. The Cyclones are rebuilding, but even good Iowa teams have trouble winning at Hilton Coliseum.

And whether this is a good Iowa team remains to be seen.

Seven games do not define a season. Let’s remember that.

And despite bringing back everyone except Peter Jok from a 19-win team, these Hawkeyes remain a work in progress — 91 percent of their points this season have come from freshmen and sophomores.

Young teams can get shell-shocked. We saw that last year in Iowa losses at Purdue and Northwestern. We saw that in the first half against Louisiana, in the second half at Virginia Tech.

But there is no get-out-of-NIT-free card in March for a young team that experienced regrettable early-season losses. Last year’s 3-5 start ultimately kept the Hawkeyes, who surged in late February and early March, just short of the NCAA Tournament. They were among the First Four Out.

I picked Iowa to finish fourth in the Big Ten this year. That might seem high to some now, but the Big Ten remains there for the taking.

As sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl said after Tuesday’s loss in Blacksburg, it’s still early.  

True.

But if the Hawkeyes don’t turn things around fast, it’ll quickly be too late.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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