Leistikow: Hawkeyes turn attention to making an NCAA run after blowout loss to Michigan
CHICAGO — The Iowa Hawkeyes are down to one final shot.
Down to one last chance to make something truly special happen with their basketball season.
Friday’s humbling 74-53 loss to third-seeded Michigan at the United Center emphatically knocked Iowa out of the Big Ten Conference Tournament. That’s 13 straight years and counting that the program hasn’t reached a Saturday semifinal in the league’s biggest annual event.
A team that spoke openly before the season about its realistic desire for a Big Ten championship has no choice but to turn to next week’s NCAA Tournament to find some postseason magic.
"It's tough. It sucks. We wanted to win a Big Ten championship. It didn't happen," said junior forward Tyler Cook, who tied Luka Garza for the team lead with 14 points. "The beautiful thing about it is we have another chance to play basketball — on the biggest stage you could ask for. This is what we sign up for."
Cook is right. There's more basketball ahead. The biggest games yet. That's worth getting excited about.
But after Friday's lackluster performance, the Hawkeyes' chances to convert in their final shot would seem to be about on par with a desperation heave.
This was ugly on many levels.
But before getting into all the stuff Iowa could’ve done better, John Beilein deserves a mountain of credit. The brilliant coach had the Wolverines well prepared to avenge their 74-59 loss in Iowa City on Feb. 1, and his players were practically perfect in every facet.
Michigan had 13 assists and one turnover in the first half, and seemingly was better in the second.
“They were better tonight in pretty much all phases of the game," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery conceded. "You learn from that. That team has a chance to go a long way. We’ve beaten them once, and I think it says a lot about our ability to potentially go a long way once we start playing next week.”
Open shots, contested shots … Michigan hit them all. And Iowa couldn't hit a thing against one of the country's stingiest defenses.
In just over 26 minutes, the Wolverines had matched their game total from six weeks ago at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and owned a 59-35 advantage.
Iowa was helpless to stop a 27-5 team that has dominated this tournament in recent years. This makes nine consecutive wins at the Big Ten Tournament for Michigan, which is two triumphs away from a third consecutive title at this 14-team event.
Whether it was Zavier Simpson tossing in one-handed shots or Jordan Poole burying a 3-pointer while getting fouled to start the second half, it was clearly the Wolverines' night.
Even so, Iowa simply wasn't competitive.
“I think it was on us defensively," Iowa guard Isaiah Moss said. "We weren’t locked in the whole game.”
he Hawkeyes had some open looks, but were 0-for-14 from 3-point range until walk-on Nicolas Hobbs banked in a 3-pointer with 1:08 remaining. Jordan Bohannon and Nicholas Baer were held without a point.
"We had some good looks early. If we can knock a few of those down, maybe it's a different ballgame," Baer said. "Obviously, we get a lot of confidence when we're making shots."
It wasn't that the Hawkeyes weren't trying; they were. But on this night, they were outmatched.
Unfortunately, this has become an all-too-familiar script under McCaffery in the postseason.
Even when the Hawkeyes can handle an inferior early-round foe (Davidson in the 2015 NCAA Tournament; Temple in the 2016 NCAAs; 11th-seeded Illinois in Thursday's first round here), they haven't even drawn blood against the big dogs.
Losses by 19 points to Gonzaga and Villanova in the round of 32 in two previous NCAA trips preceded this 21-point shellacking.
That history lesson doesn't bode well for what lies ahead.
It’s less than 48 hours to find out what's next, with Sunday night's selection show unveiling Iowa's postseason fate.
We know the Hawkeyes will head to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time under McCaffery, and for the first time with 22 wins in their pocket. That's good stuff on the heels of a 14-19 season.
The conventional wisdom before Friday was that Iowa would land in a No. 8 vs. No. 9 game, and that likely won’t change. (That doesn’t mean it’s definitely 8/9, but that’s the most likely outcome at this point.)
With five losses in their past six games, the Hawkeyes have likely left themselves a tough bracket draw. Once 21-6, Iowa is a first-round loss away from finishing 22-12.
More than likely, their only path to a Sweet 16 will travel through one of those big dogs. Probably a No. 1 (or 2) seed playing close to home.
“No matter who we get, I know we can play with whoever," Bohannon said, echoing a common theme in the Iowa locker room afterward. "I know that’s the mindset for everyone on this entire team."
McCaffery made sure to tell his players afterward that he was proud of them for the season they've had so far.
But as Friday showed, there's still more to accomplish to call this a special season.
Absolutely, getting to a Sweet 16 would qualify as special — considering the Iowa program hasn’t gotten to one since 1989.
So it's all down to this.
The school’s first unbeaten non-conference season in 32 years … the 10 wins in 13 Big Ten games from early January to mid-February … it’ll all be largely forgotten without next week being a good week for Hawkeye basketball.
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.