Nicholas Baer discusses the Hawkeye mindset entering the Big Ten Tournament. Chad Leistikow / The Register
NEW YORK — Here we are, at the finish line of what’s been an Iowa basketball season filled with disappointment and unmet expectations.
By all measures — be it eye tests or computerized statistical models — it’ll end sometime this week, perhaps as early as the conclusion of Wednesday’s 4:30 p.m. CT Big Ten Conference Tournament opener against Illinois at Madison Square Garden.
According to projections at TeamRankings.com, Iowa’s chances of extending its season by winning five games in five days in Midtown Manhattan is 0.14 percent.
Or, put another way, about a 1-in-1,000 chance. (Insert your Jim Carrey “so you’re telling me there’s a chance!” meme.)
With that improbability in mind, let’s attack this tournament from a different angle: Aside from the long-shot championship, what are the 13-18 Hawkeyes playing for?
I've landed on three pieces of unfinished business that this young team can settle.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery hopes the Hawkeyes can build off Sunday’s 77-70 win against Northwestern. Chad Leistikow / The Register
Start a streak
Iowa recorded just its fourth Big Ten Conference win of the season in Sunday’s regular-season finale, 77-70 against Northwestern. In doing so, it staved off one level of futility, as no Hawkeye team had ever gone 3-15 in conference play.
Instead, Fran McCaffery avoided becoming the first coach in Hawkeye history to go 3-15 in an 18-game Big Ten schedule. He instead tied his first season (2010-11), Todd Lickliter’s third (2009-10) and Tom Davis’ fourth (1989-90) as the program's worst at 4-14.
One reason Iowa’s record was so rotten this year was because it failed to turn one good performance into two. Not once in 2018 has Iowa won two games in a row. Its last winning streak occurred in December.
After a rousing rally from a 20-point deficit Jan. 11 at Illinois? A clunker of a 16-point loss at last-place Rutgers.
After an 18-point home rout Jan. 23 vs. Wisconsin? Perhaps the worst defensive performance of the year, giving up 98 points in regulation at Nebraska.
Then after a crisp 14-point home win Jan. 30 against Minnesota? A listless performance and a 24-point loss at Penn State, which most remember for the Nittany Lions' three dunks (of 10 in the game) in a span of 39 seconds.
What happens after a solid home performance against Northwestern, Iowa's first win in February? A chance to extend the season to March 1.
“I want to see them be more consistent at both ends of the floor, which is kind of what I’ve been saying all year long,” McCaffery said. “But that doesn’t mean I expect perfection. You can win with nine turnovers (Iowa’s total vs. Northwestern); you don’t want to have 17 (as it did a week earlier vs. Indiana).”
Luka Garza talks about Iowa breaking a 6-game losing streak as it heads to the Big Ten Tournament next. Chad Leistikow/Hawk Central
End a streak
It’s hard to believe how terrible Iowa has been recently at the Big Ten Tournament. Since winning it all in 2006, the Hawkeyes are 2-11 in this event.
The past four years have been almost inexplicable. McCaffery’s team has lost in its opener all four times, all four coming against double-digit seeds.
And it’s not like these were lousy Hawkeye teams. Three made the NCAA Tournament; the other (last year’s) was on the cusp of making it.
I asked McCaffery if he had learned lessons in those four losses that he can apply to Wednesday’s opener.
“No. We approach every game the same way,” the eighth-year Hawkeye coach said. “We just haven’t played well the last couple times, like you said. We’ll just try to play better (Wednesday).”
It’s true, each of these four losses has had different themes.
- No. 11 Northwestern in 2014? Minimal Hawkeye aggression.
- No. 13 Penn State in 2015? A 26.3 percent shooting performance.
- No. 12 Illinois in 2016? Peter Jok (29 points) fouled out with 4:17 to go.
- No. 10 Indiana in 2017? Red-hot Hoosier shooting met a porous Hawkeye defense.
The most common thread, though, won't surprise you: opponent 3-point accuracy. Combined, the Hawkeyes allowed 39 of 81 (48 percent) from long range in those four losses. If you're giving up 1.44 points per shot attempt, you're probably going to lose.
“We’ve got to play that hard and with that much intensity on the defensive end,” Iowa freshman center Luka Garza said. “When we get stops, when we can get in our transition game, we’re tough to stop.”
Step 1 to winning Wednesday: Bother 3-point shooters and hope the Illini are cold.
Step 2: Start fast. (Even a decent start might suffice.)
The Hawkeyes fell behind 22-2 at Minnesota last week, too much for a late rally to overcome.
Two years ago, in the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois raced to a 22-11 lead and hung on.
Iowa trailed by at least 18 points in each of its Big Ten road games this year.
“When we get out to fast starts, we’re just so much more effective,” junior forward Nicholas Baer said, “being able to control the game instead of (playing) from behind.”
Much like the Iowa football program desperately needed to snap a five-game bowl losing streak this past December in the Pinstripe Bowl, Iowa basketball needs to leave New York City with this annoying (and troubling) monkey off its back.
Iowa forward Tyler Cook addresses a first-round matchup against Illinois. Chad Leistikow / The Register
Leave an impression
On the court, Iowa’s most memorable moment of the season is perhaps a missed free throw — sophomore Jordan Bohannon intentionally missing in Sunday’s game to preserve the late Chris Street’s name in Iowa's record book.
But performance-wise, there’s been little to remember about this Hawkeye team. No signature wins. No buzzer-beating moments. It's been constant disappointment for a group that planned on being in the NCAA Tournament in a few weeks.
Yet this Iowa roster is far more talented than Lickliter’s was in his final year, or McCaffery’s was in his first. You knew before those tournaments started that the Hawkeyes didn’t have much of a chance.
These Hawkeyes have the horses to get on a roll. Doing that requires building confidence.
“Something that’s kind of fun about the tournament: We’re playing with nothing to lose,” Baer said.
In 2002, Iowa limped into the tournament after a 5-11 Big Ten campaign. It won three games in three days to reach the Big Ten title game and is better remembered for that magical run than the disappointment before it.
This team has one final chance to make a positive impression.
First, it’s Illinois. A toss-up game that KenPom.com has Iowa winning, 83-82.
No. 5 seed Michigan, a lock to make the NCAA Tournament but beatable if the Wolverines are off the mark from 3-point range, awaits the Iowa-Illinois winner.
Then it’d be No. 4 seed Nebraska, which could be playing tight as it tries to play its way into the Big Dance. Maybe by that point, the Hawkeyes are brimming with confidence.
McCaffery has never been to a Saturday of the Big Ten Tournament. Getting past Nebraska would accomplish that. TeamRankings.com says Iowa has a 5.6 percent chance to reach Saturday. (Hey, better than 1 in 1,000.)
“First and foremost, our effort has to be at 100 (percent). And I think it will be,” said sophomore forward Tyler Cook, Iowa’s leading scorer at 15.3 points per game. “… I’m confident in our chances of playing anybody.”
In a season to forget, even without a Big Ten title, there’s one last chance for this team to deliver a memorable ending.
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.
Big Ten Tournament
- Iowa vs. Illinois, 4:30 p.m.
- Minnesota vs. Rutgers, 6:55 p.m.
- Maryland vs. Wisconsin, 11 a.m.
- Michigan vs. Iowa-Illinois winner, 1:25 p.m.
- Penn State vs. Northwestern, 5:30 p.m.
- Indiana vs. Minnesota-Rutgers winner, 7:55 p.m.
- Michigan State vs. Maryland-Wisconsin winner, 11 a.m.
- Nebraska vs. Michigan-Iowa-Illinois winner, 1:25 p.m.
- Ohio State vs. Penn State-Northwestern winner, 5:30 p.m.
- Purdue vs. Indiana-Minnesota-Rutgers winner, 7:55 p.m.
Saturday: semifinals at 1 and 3:30
Sunday: final at 3:30