Iowa Hawkeyes soar into top 5 of polls, highest since the 1980s

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – The story sounds familiar because it is: A major Iowa sports program is predicted to finish mid-pack in its conference but defies the experts and plays its way into a national top-five ranking.

Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeye basketball team has followed the script of Kirk Ferentz’s footballers, rising to No. 3 in Monday's Associated Press Top 25 and No. 4 in the USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll. Iowa was No. 9 in both polls last week.

Iowa hasn't been ranked No. 3 since the Dec. 8, 1987 poll after a 6-0 start. This is the Hawkeyes' first top-five ranking since Jan. 10, 1989.

The Hawkeyes were ranked ahead of Kansas in the AP poll, but behind the Jayhawks by three points in the coaches' poll. One coach on Monday voted 16-3 Iowa 14th.

Disrespect sometimes comes with the territory at Iowa, hoops center Adam Woodbury said -- just like in the summer before Iowa's 12-0 football regular season.

“We kind of look at (the football team) as they were an underdog at the beginning of the season, and so were we,” Woodbury said after Sunday’s 83-71 win over then-No. 22 Purdue. “Nobody really picked either team to do very much, in the Big Ten or nationally. So we kind of take that same mindset that we’re always being overlooked, and we’ve always got something to prove.

“Personally, I think we’re overlooked every year. And that’s fine with us.”

In football, the Hawkeyes were picked to finish fourth in their seven-team West Division. All they did was rise to No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings before losses in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell, and Andrew Fleming react to a Jarrod Uthoff left-handed dunk during the second half of the Hawkeyes' 83-71 win over Purdue on Sunday.

In basketball, media members no longer predict the order of finish in the Big Ten Conference, but a Big Ten Network panel picked the Hawkeyes to finish ninth out of 14 teams in the league.

Back then, point guard Mike Gesell said this: “People forget how much experience we have back. We’ve got a bunch of guys that know how to win, know what it’s like to go into a hostile environment and win ballgames.”

Gesell’s words have been spot-on, as Iowa is riding experience and key road wins to a 7-0 mark in Big Ten play for the first time since the 1969-70 team went 14-0. And those wins have come against top-echelon competition – six of the seven have come against opponents with an above-.500 league record.

This is the second straight week Iowa is ranked in the top 10, something last done by Tom Davis’ 1988-89 Hawkeyes. That team never returned to its high point of No. 4 after a stunning 110-92 loss on Christmas Day in a Hawaii tournament to Cal-Riverside, which made 21 of 36 3-point attempts that night.

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Iowa’s first game a top-five team in 27 seasons will be a doozy: Thursday at No. 8 Maryland (6 p.m., ESPN), which is 13-0 at home since it joined the Big Ten.

“The message will never change, but I think if we all look at it pragmatically, we go on the road to play Maryland on Thursday. That in and of itself is going to keep you grounded,” said McCaffery, who will for the first time lead a top-five team in his 619th game as college head coach. “I mean, they’re incredibly talented.”

The Terrapins, viewed as the Big Ten preseason favorite, are 17-3 overall, and will have stewed for five days about a 74-65 loss at Michigan State. With a 6-2 Big Ten mark, Maryland can't afford to add a third loss before Iowa has any.

The Hawkeyes, who start four seniors and a junior, know that a small number next to their name creates a big target.

“It just means we’re playing really well right now. It’s cool to get that recognition. It’s really fun for our fans,” Gesell said. “… Every game we win, we’re going to have a bigger target on our back. Teams are looking to beat us to build their resume. And Maryland’s right on our heels, so they’ll be trying to get us.”