Iowa's Big Ten tourney overview: Best and worst case scenarios
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Players on the 18th-ranked Iowa basketball team are in a good place.
To them, a recent four-game losing streak was just part of the journey that a month ago had them rolling with 11 first-place votes in the Associated Press Top 25. They feel confident entering the Big Ten Conference Tournament in Indianapolis, which for them begins at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
“It gave us a wake-up call. Every team throughout the country (went) through moments where they lost one or two games in a row, three games in a row. And they’ve responded," Iowa senior Anthony Clemmons said. "For us, we have to understand other teams went through the same thing we went through.”
What changed? Iowa players were surprisingly upbeat after last week's 81-78 home loss to Indiana. Then they went on the road and beat a 20-win Michigan team, 71-61, to close the regular season. That served as affirmation that the Hawkeyes are ready to play their best basketball when the games count the most.
“We needed that taste of a win again, I think. That’s a very good win," Hawkeyes point guard Mike Gesell said. "During the Indiana game, I thought we improved a lot even though we didn’t get the win. That carried over into the Michigan game. I think we’re right back where we left off.”
It's one and done in Indy, then one and (really) done in the NCAA Tournament.
Here's an overview of what's at stake this week:
Of course, Iowa pulling off four wins in four days for a title like it did 15 years ago would be the ultimate prize. This senior class has invested millions of jump shots to work toward a Big Ten championship that has so far eluded them.
But your legacy ultimately is defined by what happens in the NCAA Tournament. For Iowa, the road to the iconic Sweet 16 -- and maybe beyond -- would be paved smoothest via downtown Des Moines. The Hawkeyes, generally projected as a No. 5 or 6 seed, need to have a terrific week to play their way to a 3 or 4 seed and possible first- and second-round games less than two hours west on Interstate 80.
Come out with high energy -- a problem the last two years -- and convincingly take care of business against Wedensday's Illinois-Minnesota winner. Get ahead by 15 or 20 early, and dominate. Let Ahmad Wagner, Dom Uhl, Nicholas Baer and Christian Williams play double-digit minutes. The five veteran starters will need their legs for the weekend ahead.
Then pounce on Purdue. The fourth-seeded Boilermakers are a grind-it-out team, so take advantage of your momentum early and remember why you beat them twice in January by a combined 19 points. Gesell needs to pop in a few pull-up jumpers or driving layups early to open up Peter Jok do to his thing later from deep.
Next up, Indiana. Iowa averaged 77 points in two games against the Hoosiers, but lost both. The lesson? Defense. Play some. Beating top-seeded Indiana in their home state on CBS would be the ultimate launching pad to a top-four NCAA seed -- no matter what happens in the Big Ten title game Sunday.
Again, the obvious would be a third straight one-and-done from the Thursday bracket. It happened in 2014 against 11th seed Northwestern and then last year against 13th seed Penn State. Such a loss would rattle Iowa's rediscovered confidence.
The other thing to avoid is a key injury. Losing Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury or Jok for a long period of time would kill Iowa’s hopes of playing deep in the NCAA Tournament.
But beyond those doom-and-gloom possibilities, even if Iowa were to win Thursday and lose Friday, it would be a bad sign to see Iowa give back recent progress in bench performance and limiting turnovers.
Iowa won’t come out flat again, and it’ll play with an extra bounce in its step in handily taking care of Illinois (which, we predict, will have beaten Minnesota) for the second time this season. Then comes 13th-ranked Purdue.
The Hawkeyes would have been better off drawing Maryland as the No. 4 seed. Yes, the Terrapins are more talented than Purdue, but they’ve looked more like five individuals than one team and might have underestimated Iowa after winning the teams’ Jan. 28 matchup (a 74-68 Maryland win).
Purdue enters Indianapolis as one of the league’s three hottest teams. The Boilermakers are shooting an amazing 54.7 percent in their last four games, including 47.1 percent (33-for-70) from 3-point range. They have unfinished business of their own after being picked to contend with Maryland and Michigan State for the conference title. And they’ve got motivation after losing twice to Iowa in January, not to mention a home-state crowd.
So, here goes the unpopular prediction: Purdue sends Iowa to another pre-Saturday tournament exit, 71-67.