Leistikow: Iowa basketball must show its mettle on Big Ten road to carve NCAA Tournament path

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — If the Iowa men’s basketball team is going to play its way into the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to need to protect its home court the rest of the way … and probably win at least one big game on the Big Ten Conference road.

Because the Hawkeyes’ path to the Big Dance got a little narrower Thursday night with an 84-79 home loss to Michigan.

There was no major shame in the loss, and the Hawkeyes’ team leaders weren’t hanging their heads afterward. They know this was a very good Michigan team that was the preseason pick to win the league, a team that is starting to round into its expected form.

“The Big Ten, you’re going to lose games. That’s the nature of it,” Iowa star forward Keegan Murray said. “You’ve just got to push past it and move onto the next game.”

And, lo and behold, an opportunity is immediately here for the Hawkeyes — who dropped into eighth place in the Big Ten standings at 17-8 overall and 7-7 in league play.

More:Iowa basketball's furious rally falls short in deflating home loss to Michigan

Saturday’s 1:30 p.m., Fox-televised matchup at 18th-ranked Ohio State offers a chance for Iowa to capture a significant bounce-back win, one that would boost the Hawkeyes’ NCAA resume. In fact, the Hawkeyes have three big road-game opportunities in their final six regular-season contests. A trip back to Michigan on March 3 and a March 6 finale at Illinois highlight Iowa’s final week.

Any win would be of the coveted “Quad 1” variety. But if they go 0-for-3 in that series — Ohio State (NCAA NET ranking of 17 entering Thursday), Michigan (37) and Illinois (14) — the Hawkeyes can do no better than 10-10 in conference play. They would need to handle Michigan State (gulp) and Northwestern (improving) at home and a road trip at Nebraska to get to .500.

That might be good enough to crack the NCAA field, but it might not be.

Go 11-9 in the nation’s toughest conference with a big late-season road win? The odds and the feels would be a lot better on Selection Sunday.

That’s why it’s accurate to say that Thursday’s loss to Michigan — a longer team that Iowa typically struggles against, as was the case in seeing the Wolverines shoot 27-for-42 on 2-point attempts — created a tightened path for Iowa.

More:What channel is Iowa basketball vs. Ohio State? How to watch Hawkeyes game against OSU

Jordan Bohannon finds confidence in the fact that Iowa won at Ohio State, 73-57, last season. Sure, that was without fans due to the Big Ten’s COVID-19 protocols. But that remains one of the most significant wins of the Fran McCaffery era, because it boosted Iowa to a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed — the program’s highest since 1987. A crisp performance in Columbus a year ago was also on Murray’s mind, as he’ll likely be matched up with Ohio State star E.J. Liddell.

“I’m excited for the matchup,” Murray said. “They’re a really good team.”

Added Bohannon: “We’ve just got to stay positive. That’s my job, that’s Keegan’s job, that’s Connor (McCaffery)’s job, to keep the team level-headed. We still believe we’re an NCAA Tournament team.”

The late rally helped the Hawkeyes stay upbeat.

Down 78-66 with 3 minutes to go and Murray on the sidelines dealing with leg cramps, most of Carver-Hawkeye Arena was pretty bummed. Had the Hawkeyes just slipped away quietly, this would have felt like a more demoralizing loss. But the Hawkeyes delivered a furious rally.

Patrick McCaffery, who was ill all day and didn’t start the second half, came to life with a personal 5-0 run. Murray returned from his second cramp-related absence and recorded two late blocked shots and a dunk. Iowa had the ball, down three at 80-77, and got Murray a clean look at the top of the key. He missed; in and out.

“We ran our late-game sets perfectly,” Murray said. “We got open looks down the stretch that we wanted, and they didn’t fall. That’s just basketball.”

Fran McCaffery got inspired late play from Ahron Ulis (four points), Joe Toussaint (scrappy defense) and Tony Perkins (four points, five assists). Connor McCaffery added four assists and toughness.

“I’m really proud that so many guys, when we called on them to produce, they produced,” Fran McCaffery said.

Considering Keegan Murray had bouts with cramps (yet still scored 23 points); Filip Rebraca also left for a stretch with a minor injury; Patrick McCaffery was so sick that he hadn't eaten all day; and Kris Murray fouled out against a tall front line of Michigan … the fight of this Iowa team has to be applauded.

A Michigan reporter asked coach Juwan Howard what happened in the final few minutes to allow the Hawkeyes to get so close.

“You’re not giving Iowa enough credit,” Howard replied. “Iowa’s tough, man. They’re relentless."

More:Will Iowa and Iowa State basketball make the NCAA Tournament? Here's what the experts say.

Was Jordan Bohannon fouled on the final sequence?

Well, yeah. 

It sure looked like the Hawkeye guard’s elbow got grabbed as he was gearing up to shoot in the closing seconds with Iowa behind, 82-79. In fact, Howard said that was the plan — to foul Bohannon before he had a chance to shoot. But the defender Eli Brooks, slipped to the ground. Howard made a point to mention that he wasn’t too pleased with the slipping that took place on both sides Thursday night.

Anyway, Bohannon tried to throw up a shot from about 40 feet and draw a three-shot foul. The nearest official didn’t oblige. A foul on the floor for two shots should've at least been called. Bohannon is a career 89% free throw shooter and was 5-for-5 Thursday. Put him on the line shooting three, this might've gone to overtime. 

"It was pretty obvious that he was trying to foul me. I threw up a shot. For some reason, the whistle has not been on our side this year,” Bohannon said “It has been pretty obvious in a couple games this year. It's been pretty bad, so it's really unfortunate.

“It's not the reason we lost — we got down 11 — but when it is pretty blatant like that, it should be called.”

Of course, Bohannon is also referring to a 48-46 loss at Rutgers when Keegan Murray was whistled for a highly questionable, away-from-the-basket foul in a 46-46 game with 2 seconds left.

Jordan Bohannon thought he was fouled on this desperation 3-pointer in the closing seconds.

More:Leistikow: The impact of an older brother's promise on Jordan Bohannon, whose Iowa basketball career nears its end

Getting back to the start of this column, that Jan. 19 result would’ve been a key road win in Piscataway for Iowa, as it turns out. Rutgers is rolling with a 10-5 Big Ten mark, most recently taking down first-place Illinois.

The Hawkeyes now need to turn the page quickly … and find a way to generate a big road win.

Saturday in Columbus, against an Ohio State team that's unbeaten at home this season, would be a difficult but ideal place to get that done.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.