Leistikow: An important 2 weeks for Fran McCaffery, Iowa Hawkeye basketball

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHICAGO — On a Friday night inside the United Center six years ago, Fran McCaffery threw off his sport coat. With an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, frustration was apparent as a 12-point Iowa lead with 10 minutes to go evaporated against Michigan State in the Big Ten Conference tournament.

The officiating was infamously questionable in that game. A six-minute YouTube compilation is available for those who want to revisit it from an Iowa angle, and the video doesn’t address the contention that Michigan State defenders were able to place two hands on Hawkeye ball-handlers without consequence. Guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons combined for an uncharacteristic nine turnovers in a 59-56 loss that ultimately sealed Iowa's NIT fate.

Fran McCaffery has a 19-23 record at Iowa in March, including an 0-3 mark this month heading into the Big Ten Conference tournament.

To this day, players on that Hawkeye team feel a win was stolen from them. The Big Ten’s supervisor of officials later agreed that mistakes were made; Ted Valentine, on the officiating crew that night, was never assigned to another Hawkeye conference game again.

There’s a reason I spent time this week digging back into that March 15, 2013 game. Because as bad as that was, it still remains the high point of the McCaffery era at the Big Ten Tournament.

That was Year 3 under McCaffery.

This is Year 9.

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From 2014 to 2018, 13 Big Ten teams have reached the conference quarterfinals. One hasn't.

Michigan and Michigan State are 5-for-5, as you might expect. Nebraska has made the quarterfinals three times in five years; Northwestern and Penn State have two quarterfinal appearances with one Saturday semifinal each. Even Rutgers, which joined the league in 2015, got there once.

Iowa? Zero.

That dubious distinction is perplexing, considering three of the five Hawkeye teams after 2013 were chosen for the NCAA Tournament. For whatever reason under McCaffery, Iowa and the Big Ten Tournament haven't mixed.

In 2014, an unraveling Iowa team was stunned in the first round by an 11th-seeded (out of 12 then) Northwestern team it shellacked by a combined 52 points in the regular season. That flat 67-62 loss in Indianapolis dropped the Hawkeyes into a one-and-done exit at the NCAA’s First Four in Dayton, Ohio.

In 2015, an Iowa team trending up was blind-sided in Chicago. After winning their the final six regular-season games, the No. 5 seed Hawkeyes lost an 11-point second-half lead and the game, 67-58, to 13th-seeded Penn State.

In 2016, a team that had once ascended to the national top five limped back to Indianapolis as a No. 5 seed. And it couldn't find the answers to beat a 12th-seeded Illinois team going nowhere under John Groce. Peter Jok (29 points) fouled out on a technical with 4 minutes to play, and a 68-66 loss left Iowa with a No. 7 NCAA Tournament seed for the second straight year.

In 2017, with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, Iowa delivered a fourth straight flop against a double-digit seed. The Hawkeyes (a No. 7) were riding a four-game winning streak until being dismantled, 95-73, by 10th-seeded Indiana in Washington, D.C. That left them among the "First Four Out" of the NCAAs.

Somewhat sadly, 2018 might be considered Iowa's best Big Ten Tournament showing in five years. Seeded No. 12 after a miserable 13-18 regular season, the Hawkeyes outlasted Illinois then pushed eventual NCAA runner-up Michigan to overtime in the round of 12 before falling, 77-71.

Bottom Big Ten line since that Michigan State loss in 2013: 0-5 on Thursdays, 0-0 on Fridays.

Apologies for dragging you through that meager history review.

A rough-and-tumble 2013 Big Ten Tournament matchup between Michigan State and Iowa is depicted in this photo, as the Spartans' Adreian Payne (5) shoots against Iowa during a 59-56 win. Zach McCabe and Mike Gesell are on the ground; Melsahn Basabe is trailing.

But it's important, because these things all add up ... and point directly to this week. Once again, the Hawkeyes face a Big Ten Tournament Thursday game they should win. They’ll arrive at the United Center (just like 2013) as a No. 6 seed (just like 2013) after a .500 Big Ten regular season (just like 2013).

The first-round opponent could be Northwestern (just like 2013) or Illinois. Those double-digit seeds with a combined 24-38 record were facing off at 8 p.m. CT Wednesday, with the winner taking on the 21-10 Hawkeyes at approximately 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Iowa went a combined 3-0 against Northwestern and Illinois during the regular season. But it arrives to Chicago in disarray, having lost four straight games — three in humbling fashion by an average margin of 18 points, the fourth on a final-minute meltdown at Nebraska.

This week will either continue a bad Hawkeye narrative ... or create a new one.

McCaffery is 3-8 in the Big Ten Tournament, the three wins coming against opponents with seeds of 9, 11 and 13. That three-point loss to Michigan State in 2013 is the closest McCaffery has gotten to a Saturday at this event. As a program, Iowa hasn't reached a Saturday since 2006 under Steve Alford — who, by comparison, went 13-6 in his eight Big Ten Tournament trips with three title-game appearances and two championships.

Let's be clear: The conference tournament isn’t the be-all, end-all to measure a program. But with each growing year of disappointment, it is packed with more meaning for a fan base (not to mention a roster) that needs to be reassured that McCaffery is the right coach lead this program to special moments.

Having just covered the Iowa women’s run to a Big Ten title in Indianapolis, such moments of triumph are etched in history and memory banks forever. Most Hawkeye fans in their 30s and up still remember the Brody Boyd-led charge to the 2001 tournament championship as a fledgling No. 6 seed; they even fondly recall the run to the 2002 title game behind the multiple buzzer-beating heroics of Luke Recker.

Add up enough Big Ten Tournament duds, and those don’t get forgotten, either.

You remember those way more than a January loss to Purdue.

A Hawkeye-fan friend asked me Sunday night: What is McCaffery’s record in March?

I added it up: 19-23 in eight years. That includes a 4-1 spurt to a 2013 NIT runner-up finish following the loss to Michigan State. That was a surging Hawkeye team primed for an NCAA run had it not gotten a raw deal in Chicago.

But McCaffery's March record since? 9-15, including just three postseason wins (over South Dakota, Davidson and Temple) in 12 tries.

March is when it matters.

Nobody makes T-shirts to commemorate a strong December and January. The players at Iowa have changed over five-plus years, but — so far — the results haven't.

This year's Hawkeye team has talented pieces at every position. It drubbed fifth-ranked Michigan on the way to the program's best 27-game start in 30 years.

The majority of this season felt like the McCaffery era was on track for validation. But if another March flame-out is upon us, it'll feel like an indictment.

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.

Thursday's Big Ten Tournament opener

Matchup: No. 6 seed Iowa (21-10) vs. No. 11 Illinois (11-20) or No. 14 Northwestern (13-18)

When, where: Approximately 8:30 p.m. CT, Chicago

TV: Big Ten Network

The winner gets: No. 3 seed Michigan (26-5) at approximately 8:30 p.m. Friday

Coverage: Mark Emmert and Chad Leistikow will be reporting from the United Center. Check HawkCentral.com for stories, videos and analysis.