Iowa soars to No. 9 in national polls, highest in 14 years

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa basketball has officially reached new heights under coach Fran McCaffery.

The Hawkeyes were ranked No. 9 in both the Associated Press and USA TODAY Coaches polls released Monday. Iowa was given a boost of seven spots by the AP and 10 by the coaches after double-digit wins over Michigan State and Michigan.

Iowa’s previous high in McCaffery’s six years at Iowa was a one-week stay at 10th in both the coaches’ and Associated Press polls of Jan. 20, 2014. But the Hawkeyes would eventually lose seven of their final eight games that season and finish unranked.

The Hawkeyes last were as high as No. 9 in both polls in the first week of January 2002. Steve Alford’s third team at Iowa, which was as high as No. 7 in November 2001, completely fell apart shortly thereafter, going 5-11 in Big Ten Conference play.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery gets a chuckle after an official correctly overturned a call in the Hawkeyes' favor during their 82-71 win Sunday over Michigan. McCaffery's team has won seven in a row.

So, the question is: Can Iowa enjoy a longer top-10 stay this time? This team has been playing at a high level after blowing a 20-point second-half lead against Iowa State on Dec. 10 and losing, 83-82, in the final seconds.

Since then, Iowa has won seven in a row — including a 5-0 start in Big Ten play that counts two victories by a combined 30 points over now-No. 11 Michigan State and a comeback victory at now-No. 22 Purdue.

“I didn't not see it coming. I thought we had a really good team. I felt we had the potential,” McCaffery said after Sunday’s 82-71 win over Michigan. “I think you can look at the Iowa State game two ways. Playing the second-ranked team (in the Coaches' Poll) in the country on the road in a hostile environment, and we scored 82 and lost by one. Or you can say, 'OK, we had a lead and we couldn't get the ball in-bounds twice and we blew the game.' I choose the former, and I tend to look at the positive side of things and trust my guys.”

This week, all that separates Iowa from its first 6-0 start since Tom Davis’ legendary 1986-87 team shot to No. 1 in the national polls is a Thursday victory at Rutgers, the Big Ten’s worst team. The Hawkeyes host Purdue in a noon game Sunday.

Iowa is suddenly the toast of the nation. Projected NCAA Tournament brackets, including one from CBS guru Jerry Palm, are circulating now with the Hawkeyes as a No. 2 seed and playing in Des Moines for the first two rounds. Iowa center Adam Woodbury said after the Michigan game that rankings only matter in March.

All that is on McCaffery's purview is Thursday's ESPNU-televised 6 p.m. game in Piscataway, N.J.

Rutgers stunned 2015 Big Ten champion Wisconsin there a year ago.

"I've coached in leagues before where you could bring less than your best and beat the bottom teams. Not this league," McCaffery said. "Anything less than your best, you are going to get beat every time."