IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa, a No. 10 seed in the South Region, is one of the coldest teams heading into the 68-team NCAA Tournament that begins Tuesday night.
Yet the Hawkeyes think they can get hot, starting with Friday’s 11:15 a.m. (central time) first-round matchup against Cincinnati in Columbus, Ohio. They’ve comfortably beaten three teams in the field: Pacific-12 tournament champion Oregon, Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State and West No. 2 seed Michigan.
“We’ve seen ourselves play at a really high level this year,” said junior forward Tyler Cook, who along with every Hawkeye except Nicholas Baer will be making his first NCAA appearance. “We know we can do it. It’s not like we’re hoping for something we’re not sure we can do. It’s about us playing basketball the right way.”
The Hawkeyes started the season 21-6, the program’s best 27-game start in 30 years. They’ve lost five of six games since, but still qualified for the field based on a strong resume compiled from November through early February.
Statistically and historically speaking, what are Iowa’s chances? Let’s take a closer look.
2016 Syracuse can offer Hawkeyes some hope.
This statement might feel like an immediate downer: Only one team in the last nine NCAA Tournaments has lost five of six entering the Big Dance then turned it on to reach the Sweet 16.
Those are not good odds. Then again, not many teams are able to lose five of its final six games and still be good enough for the NCAAs. So, admittedly, the sample size isn’t huge.
Syracuse, in 2016, entered the NCAAs as a No. 10 seed — just like Iowa does. It had lost four of its final five regular-season games, then lost by one to Pittsburgh in the opener of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The Orange, though, turned it around and reached the Final Four.
They blew out seventh-seeded Dayton in the opener and caught a break when No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State upset No. 2 Michigan State. After getting to the Sweet 16, they drew No. 11 seed Gonzaga (in another nice bit of fortune) before stifling No. 1 seed Virginia to reach college basketball’s promised land.
There is an obvious difference, though, between 2016 Syracuse and 2019 Iowa. Jim Boeheim has been to 33 NCAA Tournaments, five Final Fours and three title games (with one championships) as a coach.
Fran McCaffery, now in his 23rd season as a college head coach, has never made it to a Sweet 16. This will be his ninth NCAA Tournament appearance; he’s twice won first-round games with Siena (2008, 2009) and twice with Iowa (2015, 2016) but has never won a second-round game.
There are other examples, too.
While it was difficult to find teams that had lost five of six entering the NCAAs, there have been plenty of cold teams that turned it on in mid-March.
Just last year, five teams had been playing mediocre basketball before making a Sweet 16 run. Clemson had lost five of eight; Syracuse had lost four of six.
No. 9 seed Kansas State had lost three of five before making a charge into the Elite Eight. No. 9 Florida State had lost three of four, then made the Elite Eight. No. 3 seed Texas Tech had lost five of seven but also reached the Elite Eight.
In 2017, Xavier had lost seven of 10 games entering the NCAA Tournament but ran off three straight wins to get to the Elite Eight. South Carolina had lost five of seven before making the Final Four.
“Everybody that has an opportunity. That’s the beauty of it,” McCaffery said. “You can win and advance. It takes a lot of cohesiveness to do that. You’ve got to limit your mistakes. You’ve got to shoot the ball pretty well. We’ll go over there with a solid game plan and a readiness to play 40 minutes.”
The percentages, though, are not in Iowa’s favor.
Nate Silver’s analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com is widely accessed this time of year. His formula doesn’t bode well for Iowa. It gives the Hawkeyes, who are 3½-point underdogs to Cincinnati, only a 32 percent probability of winning their opening game. That’s tied with Minnesota as the lowest chance to advance of any of eight Big Ten teams. Further, the Hawkeyes are given only a 7 percent chance to reach their first Sweet 16 in 20 years.
Looking at last year’s tournament, only one team that had lost five of six (like Iowa) entering the dance. And Arizona State promptly lost to Syracuse in a First Four game in Dayton. The other ice-cold team entering March was Oklahoma, which lost eight of 10 going into the NCAAs and (like Iowa) fell to a No. 10 seed. The Sooners lost in the first round to Rhode Island.
This March, only one other team — Marquette, a No. 5 seed in the West — enters the tournament having lost five of its last six games. Keep an eye on how the Golden Eagles fare against No. 12 seed Murray State on Thursday.
"The goal is to get to the weekend" and then see what happens, Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon said.
Win one, anything can happen. Maybe No. 15 seed Colgate upsets No. 2 seed Tennessee. March can be goofy, but it typically rewards the teams that play hard and play well for 40 minutes.
Bottom line: Don’t count the Hawkeyes out from making a surprising run. But know if they do, they'll be bucking history.
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.