Can these Hawkeyes win four games in four days?
CHICAGO, Ill. – History says no Iowa men's basketball team has been this hot in 28 seasons, at least in Big Ten play. It also says that the Hawkeyes and the conference tournament don't mix so well recently.
So when Iowa tips off Thursday afternoon in the Big Ten Tournament here at the United Center, which trend is to be believed?
That's obviously impossible to know for sure, which is why they play the games. But this 21-10 outfit that's won six games in a row — Iowa's longest Big Ten streak since the Elite Eight team of 1986-87 — seems to have everything in the toolbox to win four games in four days.
"You don't talk about the fourth day, obviously. You talk about the first one," Iowa senior forward Aaron White said. "It all starts on Thursday. I definitely think we've got the roster to make a run in this tournament."
Being hot doesn't necessarily translate to a championship run. Remember the 2001 Hawkeyes? They lost seven of eight games before storming to a four-day string of wins and the Big Ten Tournament title.
"I think there's a lot more put into (being hot) than there probably should be," Iowa fifth-year coach Fran McCaffery said. "That said, you kind of want to be legitimate in terms of, we feel like we're playing well. We feel like we're doing the things necessary to win."
Last year in this tournament, Iowa didn't play well. At all.
It came in as the No. 6 seed and left shell-shocked by a Northwestern team it had beaten twice, each time by 26 points, during the regular season.
Player by player was asked this week: Were there any clues that shocker could happen? To a man, they all said that team was prepared — but just fell flat.
"They got the best of us that night," Iowa junior center Adam Woodbury said. "They played with nothing to lose."
As a result of that 67-62 loss to a 14-19 Wildcats club that lost by 16 the next day, Iowa was relegated to a First Four NCAA Tournament game that ended its season.
This year, that's not a possibility. Iowa is projected as a top-seven seed in the NCAA field, far from bubble status.
And there are other notable differences from last year's team, which rose to No. 10 in the national polls before famously losing seven of its final eight.
"We didn't defend (last year) like this team has been defending," McCaffery said of his team that's held five of its last 10 opponents to 55 points or less. "We relied a little bit more on our offense, and I think that's probably why we lost some close games down the stretch."
Underscoring the Hawkeyes' defense is their 20-1 record when scoring at least 64 points, hardly a run-and-gun total.
Here's another number No. 5 seed Iowa can lean on this week: seven. That's how many upperclassmen — three seniors, four juniors — average at least 18 minutes a game.
That veteran dependency (and urgency) is something that even casual March Madness viewers know can fuel a run to glory.
"Any time you have older teams," Purdue coach Matt Painter said, "they normally get it in terms of how important this is."
Painter's fourth-seeded Boilermakers are waiting to see if Iowa wins Thursday's 1:30 p.m. game against either Penn State or Nebraska. Painter said a rematch of Purdue's 67-63 win in West Lafayette, Ind., would "be a really tough matchup for us. We were fortunate to win the first game."
The winner of that one is already into the Big Ten semifinals — a Saturday spot that's eluded the Hawkeyes since 2006, the last time they won the tournament.
Iowa is 2-8 in Big Ten Tournament play since.
Some very bad Iowa teams contributed to that dubious mark. Todd Lickliter lost in the opening round to Michigan in each of his three years as coach.
But this Hawkeye team seems different than the previous eight — this one has productive veterans, momentum and even swagger.
"Our confidence is way higher this year," White said. "It's a totally different mood around our team than last year at this point."
Junior guard Anthony Clemmons said the tight-knit group is rallying around the seniors — White, Josh Oglesby and Gabe Olaseni — to make sure there are no regrets.
They remember what last year felt like, when Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe ended productive careers with a thud.
"We all have that in the back of our minds," Clemmons said, "that we don't want to go through that again."
"We have that chip," Clemmons said. "We're working to be a championship team."
Four wins in four days will require great play, some luck and an upset along the way — probably against No. 1 seed Wisconsin on Saturday. But this group that's rocketed from 47th to 19th since January in stats guru Ken Pomeroy's national ratings is feeling good.
And anything seems possible.
"We're all trying to enjoy it," Oglesby said. "We're having fun; we're winning."
THURSDAY'S BIG TEN TOURNAMENT GAME
Who: No. 5 seed Iowa (21-10) vs. No. 13 Penn State (17-15)
When, where: Approximately 1:30 p.m. CT, United Center, Chicago
TV: Big Ten Network. Radio: WHO (AM-1040) and the Hawkeye network.
The winner meets: No. 4 seed Purdue at approximately 1:30 p.m. Friday
Matchup overview: Penn State guard Shep Garner said he expects "a different outcome this time" after losing to the Hawkeyes in overtime, 81-77, on Feb. 28 in State College, Pa. "We're a totally different team from two weeks ago," Garner said. … Aaron White's steal of an inbounds pass with Penn State down 1 in the final minute was Iowa's key play in that win. White finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. … Thirteen of Penn State's 19 Big Ten games have been decided by single digits, including Wednesday's 68-65 win over Nebraska. D.J. Newbill scored 26 points, and Garner had 19. … Iowa went 7-3 in true road games this year, but went 0-3 on neutral courts with losses to Texas and Syracuse in New York and to Northern Iowa in Des Moines.
A RUGGED ROAD
Iowa hasn't reached Saturday of the Big Ten Tournament since 2006, going 2-8 in that span. A look at the results of the eight years since (with head coach):
2007 (Steve Alford) — Lost to Purdue.
2008 (Todd Lickliter) — Lost to Michigan.
2009 (Lickliter) — Lost to Michigan.
2010 (Lickliter) — Lost to Michigan.
2011 (Fran McCaffery) — Lost to Michigan State.
2011 (McCaffery) — Beat Illinois; lost to Michigan State.
2011 (McCaffery) — Beat Northwestern; lost to Michigan State.
2014 (McCaffery) — Lost to Northwestern.