Leistikow: Late-game magic a new development for McCaffery, a new feeling for Hawkeye fans

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Better to be lucky and good.

The Iowa basketball team this season has proven to be both — a potent combination that has produced unforgettable buzzer-beaters and (so far) a 20-5 record.

Now, the trick is to keep the magic alive for what now becomes the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes’ most important game to date. A 7 p.m. Tuesday showdown against No. 25 Maryland at Carver-Hawkeye Arena puts a perfect February record (4-0) on the line but comes with a chance to take a big step forward in the Big Ten Conference race.

A win, and the Hawkeyes (9-5 in the Big Ten) would own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Terrapins (19-7, 10-5) for seeding at the March 13-17 conference tournament in Chicago. This is their lone regular-season meeting. Iowa and Wisconsin entered Monday tied for fifth in the standings, a half of a game behind fourth-place Maryland.

Iowa players (from left: Tyler Cook, Ryan Kriener, Isaiah Moss, Jordan Bohannon and Riley Till) have had a lot to be excited about in February, with a 4-0 record that includes three tight wins and a rout of No. 5 Michigan.

Lose Tuesday, and Iowa’s odds for a Big Ten double-bye (the top four seeds don’t play their first games until Friday, March 15) go way down.

“The bottom line is,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday, “our guys fully understand the quality of the team coming in here Tuesday night.”

The website of analytics guru Ken Pomeroy suggests this will be a one-point Iowa win, 76-75.

In other words, a close game is expected.

And under McCaffery, no Iowa team has been better in close games.

Entering this season, McCaffery’s Iowa teams were an almost inexplicable 19-41 in games decided by five points or less — including 2-7 marks three different seasons. Overall, that’s a woeful 31.7-percent success rate with a robust sample size of 60 games over eight years.

This Iowa team, though, has broken the McCaffery mold. It's 5-1 in games decided by five points or less — and the one loss was hardly a nail-biter … with Isaiah Moss’ inconsequential 3 as time expired cutting the final margin of defeat at Minnesota to 92-87.

McCaffery attributed the crunch-time success to a wide range of factors, but they all center around being able to put five guys on the floor with high basketball IQs.

“We have a group that is executing well, whether we’re running our late-game action or our set plays,” McCaffery said. “We have good ball-handlers and passers; we don’t have turnover guys; we have intelligent guys that understand time and score — what we need. We’re defending better.”

Three times this season, the outcome of a Hawkeye game came down to a final shot.

All three times, the Hawkeyes won.

Again, that's an unusual feeling for Hawkeye fans — who have been conditioned for heartbreak over the past decade.

A Pittsburgh misfire saved a 69-68 Iowa win on Nov. 27. And now, we've witnessed miracle moments with back-to-back game-winning 3-pointers from Jordan Bohannon (to beat Northwestern, 80-79) and Joe Wieskamp (to beat Rutgers, 71-69).

Just think how different the season narrative would be if the Hawkeyes were 17-8 and coming off back-to-back losses to inferior teams.

Instead, they're 20-5 and riding a wave of magic with six regular-season games to go.

On that note...

It's probably a bit unfair to describe a team with a penchant for narrow wins as "lucky."

After all, Bohannon had to have the presence and talent to shoot that Northwestern-beating 3 from his hip to beat the clock. And Wieskamp needed savvy to collect the ball and his composure before unleashing desperation 3 off the side of the backboard (and into the hoop) at Rutgers.

But KenPom.com does include a “luck” category on his site, so let’s go with that term for the purposes of this conversation.

A year ago, Iowa went 14-19 but ranked No. 341 out of 351 Division I teams in what Pomeroy calls "luck" using his analytics — explained as "the deviation in winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record."

This year? Iowa is the 23rd-luckiest D-I team out of 353, highest among any power-conference team (No. 26 Marquette and No. 34 Kansas State are next).

As NFL legend Mike Ditka once said after an improbable Chicago Bears win, “I’ll take the luck. I'm tired of the skill.”

The Hawkeyes clearly have had both on their side, to date. Only one previous McCaffery team, in 2015-16, reached 20 wins through 25 games. Those Hawkeyes then lost four straight and were scuffling entering the NCAA Tournament.

These Hawkeyes may not be as explosive as that Jarrod Uthoff-led team, but they seem to be carrying a different swagger. A combination of schematics and dramatics should give this team the confidence it needs to take on any challenge that comes its way — starting with Maryland on Tuesday.

"We have more of a veteran team, and we’ve been through a lot,” McCaffery said. “It’s fun to watch when the kids truly understand what we’re doing and execute it the way they have been."

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 records in close games under Fran McCaffery

The Hawkeyes are 24-42 in McCaffery’s nine seasons in games decided by five points or less. A breakdown by season:

2018-19: 5-1 (Wins: Pittsburgh, 69-68; Bryant, 72-67; at Indiana, 77-72; Northwestern, 80-79; at Rutgers, 71-69. Loss: at Minnesota, 92-87).
2017-18: 0-4
2016-17: 3-3
2015-16*: 3-6
2014-15*: 3-4
2013-14*: 2-7
2012-13: 2-7
2011-12: 4-3
2010-11: 2-7

* — NCAA Tournament team