Leistikow: Hawkeyes not ruling themselves out of tightening Big Ten race

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — You may see Rutgers appearing twice in the next five games on Iowa’s basketball schedule and think, “Should be two easy wins for the Hawkeyes.”

But the reality is, neither Saturday’s 5 p.m. game in New Jersey nor the March 2 matchup in Iowa City will come easy.

Because nothing has in the Big Ten Conference all season.

“When you go on the road or at home against anybody in this league, everybody in this league wants to win,” Iowa junior forward Tyler Cook said. “Everybody’s on scholarship. Everyone plays high-level basketball.

“People wrote Illinois off super early, and now they’re one of the hottest teams in our conference.”

Cook speaks the truth.

A few hours after he said that Thursday, the Illini went into Columbus and knocked off Ohio State.

Iowa leading scorer Tyler Cook knows that the Hawkeyes can't start slow at Rutgers like they did against Northwestern.

Some other stuff that’s happened to the league’s top teams, just in the past several weeks:

Maryland lost by double digits in a neutral-site game against Illinois, which was 1-7 in the Big Ten at the time.

Michigan State, as a 14-point favorite, tumbled at home of all places to an Indiana team that had lost seven straight.

And on Tuesday, first-place Michigan trailed for the final 36 minutes in a loss at last-place Penn State.

“They beat Michigan, and everybody was surprised,” said Iowa ninth-year coach Fran McCaffery, who of course was not among those surprised. McCaffery added he has no doubt that this year's Big Ten, from top to bottom, is better than it's been since he's been here.

“(The Nittany Lions) have three players that are as good as any three players in the country. And you look at Rutgers' talent now compared to what it was three years ago, it's really impressive.”

And that brings us back to Saturday’s matchup.

Though the Scarlet Knights are 12-12, they’ve won four of their last seven in the Big Ten and have given plenty of opponents all they can handle — including a five-point loss at Wisconsin. The Rutgers Athletic Center (aka “The RAC”) is sold out for Saturday’s game, a sign of the increasing relevance of both Rutgers and Iowa.

Rutgers is a poor shooting team, but it crashes the glass (with a Big Ten-best 13.1 offensive rebounds a game) and plays in-your-face defense, with plenty of size to match up with Iowa's interior talent.

It'll take 40 spirited minutes for the Hawkeyes to win.

“Definitely one of the best Rutgers teams they’ve had, maybe ever,” astute basketball fan and Iowa center Luka Garza said. (The Scarlet Knights have the longest NCAA Tournament drought, at 27 years, of any Power Five program.) “… They’re really dangerous, especially in their arena.”

More:Iowa center Luka Garza on first-half foul trouble: 'I've got to be smarter'

This season, Iowa has successfully avoided “bad losses” — even though we’ve been over the fact that over-used phrase shouldn’t really apply to anything that happens this year in the Big Ten.

All five of the Hawkeyes’ losses have been in what the NCAA deems to be in the Quadrant 1 (of 4) category. They narrowly averted their first Quadrant 2 loss with Sunday’s heroic rally past Northwestern.

Saturday’s game marks another Q2 challenge. At No. 112, Rutgers' NCAA NET ranking is 32 spots lower than any other Big Ten team.

An Iowa win is imperative to not only keep that non-Q1 record perfect, but to keep its chances at tracking down the Big Ten leaders realistic.

Somewhat quietly, a three-game win streak by the sixth-place Hawkeyes — combined with eight February losses by the league's five leading teams — has pulled them within striking distance. Iowa (19-5, 8-5), which began 0-3 in Big Ten play, stands two games in the loss column behind first-place Michigan and Michigan State (11-3 each).

Northwestern-game hero Jordan Bohannon said he's aware of Iowa's position. He also has known since he stepped on campus that the program hasn't won or shared a Big Ten regular-season championship since 1979 — 18 years before he was born.

“There’s still 7-8 games left for a lot of teams,” Bohannon said. “Anything can happen at this point.

“Iowa fans, they would love a conference title as much as we would.”

The Hawkeyes would probably have to run the table and finish 15-5 to have a realistic shot at that goal. They should be favored in four of their final seven games, for whatever that’s worth — which isn’t much in this year’s Big Ten.

The real priority is to keep piling up wins, one by one. Then take your best shot come mid-March.

“We’re trying to make our own history here,” Bohannon said. “I think we have a real good shot of doing that.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa's remaining Big Ten schedule

Saturday: at Rutgers (12-12, 5-9)

Tuesday: vs. Maryland (19-6, 10-4)

Feb. 22: vs. Indiana (13-11, 4-9)

Feb. 26: at Ohio State (16-8, 6-7)

March 2: vs. Rutgers (12-12, 5-9)

March 7: at Wisconsin (17-8, 9-5)

March 10: at Nebraska (14-11, 4-10)

'Hawk Central' talks Bohannon and what's next for the 19-5 men's basketball team