Leistikow: 21-6 Hawkeyes on track to be Fran McCaffery's best team at Iowa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The dramatic finishes that have heavily defined this unforgettable Iowa basketball season have, in a strange way, masked the workmanlike results.

With each spirited comeback and buzzer-beater, the Hawkeyes quietly keep generating plus-ones for their win column.

In today’s college basketball world, every game is televised and scrutinized. But sometimes we — myself included — get too caught up in how the performance looked or the quality of opponent or the latest advanced metrics. We fall into the trap of quibbling about stuff that went wrong instead of discussing whether the primary goal of competitive sports (winning) was accomplished.

And, so far, no Hawkeye team in the Fran McCaffery era has been better at consistently piling up wins.

Ryan Kriener (right, chest-bumping teammate Luka Garza) says a “never say die attitude" has been with this Hawkeye team throughout the offseason.

At 21-6, Iowa has already matched the highest regular-season win total in McCaffery’s nine seasons in Iowa City. And there are still four games to go until the postseason begins, starting with Tuesday’s game at Ohio State. The 6 p.m. CT contest will be televised on Big Ten Network.

“What you’ve seen with our team is we’re not one-dimensional. Not one or two guys have to play well,” McCaffery said, explaining his team’s success to date. “We have various people that have proven over time they can step up and be a factor in any game, at either end. And I think that’s been critical.”

This is McCaffery’s first Iowa team to start 21-6. His previous three NCAA Tournament teams finished with regular-season records of 20-11 (2014), 21-10 (2015) and 21-9 (2016). Based on the wins — and that’s really what we should measure success by, right? — this is tracking to be the best team of the McCaffery era.

Taking the point further: This is the first Iowa team in 30 years — dating to the 1988-89 Hawkeyes, when Roy Marble, Eddie Horton and B.J. Armstrong were seniors — that has won 21 of its first 27 games.

Even Steve Alford’s 2005-06 team, which won the Big Ten Tournament and earned a No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed, went 22-8 in the regular season. With a 2-2 finish in its final four games (Iowa hosts Rutgers on Saturday, then visits Wisconsin and Nebraska next week), this Iowa team would top that team led by Jeff Horner, Greg Brunner and Adam Haluska.

After Iowa’s 76-70 overtime win against Indiana on Friday, I asked junior forward Ryan Kriener if he truly saw this coming after last year’s 13-18 regular season.

“Yeah. 100 percent,” Kriener said without hesitation. “I remember we gave some interviews in the offseason. I was right by Jordan (Bohannon), and someone asked (his) goals for the year. He said, win a Big Ten championship and make a run in March Madness to the Final Four.

“Some of the reporters around him, they literally just laughed at him. You guys don’t get to see all the work we put in.”

Starting 21-6 is one thing; getting to a Sweet 16 or a Final Four is another. But safe to say, this Hawkeye team deserves appreciation for how it just wins, baby.

Forget quadrants and adjusted efficiencies for a moment — and enjoy the wins. A season like this doesn’t come along very often.

McCaffery, as you would imagine, is all about the Ws.

“We tend to, especially this time of year, gravitate toward that analytics stuff,” he said. “The great thing about our league is every night you have a chance to get a quality win.”

Iowa (10-6 in conference play) is alone in sixth place in the Big Ten; Ohio State (17-10, 7-9) is in seventh. A Hawkeye win on Tuesday night would complete a season sweep of the Buckeyes and guarantee Iowa no worse than a No. 6 seed at the Big Ten Tournament that starts March 13 in Chicago.

Don’t be surprised if another close game is in the cards.

Iowa is projected by to lose by two points. (Sorry, had to use analytics for a second there.)

If it's close, Iowa will be ready. Kriener explained after the Indiana win — in which Iowa overcame a six-point deficit in the final 2:17 of regulation to force overtime — that practices frequently focus on handling late-game scenarios.

“You (practice) when you’re down four and the other team’s shooting free throws. You’re down five and you have the ball,” Kriener said. “That’s stuff we work on continuously. We get to that situation (in a game), that calms us down a little bit.”

Bohannon’s big-moment magic has been a catalyst for Iowa continuing to rack up wins. But what's been unique from game to game is the various crunch-time lineups McCaffery has used. 

For example, Joe Wieskamp didn't play down the stretch against Indiana. Regulars Isaiah Moss and Luka Garza have sometimes been watching from the bench with the game on the line.

“It’s nice to be able to do that as a coach,” McCaffery said. “It’s even better when your players understand the importance of having that kind of team. Whoever’s in does their job. Whoever’s out is pulling for that group.”

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.