Ahead of Big Ten Tournament, Hawkeyes out to prove recent slide is 'a blip on the radar'

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The sights and sounds Monday afternoon at Duane Banks Field hardly reflected a team sliding at the wrong time.

A jovial group of Hawkeyes played a version of “flip” in foul territory as batting practice commenced on the field. Smiles and chuckles were easy to find. Everyone laughed when an errant foul ball nearly drilled the media contingency lingering by the home dugout.

“It’s not like we’ve given up,” senior Cole McDonald said.

If any team could use a postseason reset, it’s this Hawkeyes group. A team that spent a week in the top 25, landed two huge series wins in the past month and carried serious NCAA Tournament at-large dreams is now fighting for its season. A lot can change when the margin for error is slim, and the Hawkeyes have learned the hard way.

A chance to redefine the 2019 season exists in Omaha, Nebraska. Five straight losses have Iowa at the bottom of the Big Ten Tournament field as the No. 8 seed. Up first is Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

The Hawkeyes are anxious to rekindle their previous form.

“You want to be playing your best baseball when the postseason comes around, and unfortunately, that’s not what we’re doing right now. But going to the conference tournament, it’s a brand-new season.” left-fielder Chris Whelan said. “There’s really no reason to focus too much on what’s happened the last two weekends.

“You’ve just got to move past it and have a couple good days of practice here. Just reset your mind, because we all know what we’re capable of. We’ve done it the last two months, playing really good baseball. We just have to go back to understanding how good we are.”                

Iowa infielder Lorenzo Elion (1) stands on third between batters during a NCAA non conference baseball game on Tuesday, March 19, 2019, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

A silver lining amid the futility is Iowa doesn’t need to search far back to find its most potent product. Less than three weeks ago, the Hawkeyes celebrated a resume-enhancing weekend win over UC Irvine. It was barely a month prior that Iowa sent rival Nebraska back west with a series loss.

Confidence might waver if the Hawkeyes (30-22) had peaked in mid-March or early April — and, thus, spent the last few weeks spinning in mediocrity. Whether that more recent peaking translates to an Omaha run remains unclear.

What is clear: You won’t find many conference tournaments where the lowest-seeded team was projected as an NCAA regional qualifier not even three weeks ago.

“It isn’t like there’s been a total collapse — just a blip on the radar — and unfortunately the wrong time of the year to have it,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “I think every one of our guys in fired up and ready for a fresh start, a clean state going into the postseason.

“Just trying to run the table, which is what we have to do to get into the (NCAA) Tournament. It’s still right there in front of us.”  

Since the Big Ten Tournament expanded to eight teams in 2014, No. 8 seeds are 4-9 all-time, with three 0-2 showings. Iowa, however, has racked up all four of the victories. The Hawkeyes memorably surged to the title game in 2016 as the last team in. They also went 1-2 in 2014.

Current players Mitchell Boe, Luke Farley, Shane Ritter and McDonald were freshmen when the Hawkeyes made their magical eight-seed run before falling to Ohio State in the championship game.

Other veterans have experienced both ends of the Big Ten Tournament spectrum. There was triumph in 2017, when Iowa clinched its first conference tournament title with four wins in four days. The was also the pain of 2018, as Iowa scored one run in 19 innings en route to an early exit.

It takes a few breaks and some luck to successfully navigate the Omaha beast. Iowa, despite its recent flaws, feels it has the horses to correct this ill-timed skid.

“There’s no doubt that we can turn it around,” said McDonald, who’ll get the ball against Indiana. "Confidence is definitely really strong. We’re definitely ready to go. We just need to get back to what we’ve been doing the entire season. Just because we haven’t played well the last two weeks doesn’t mean we’re a bad team.”                   

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.