Hawkeyes' approach in Indy: championship or bust
INDIANAPOLIS — This is it. Iowa’s wild ride of a 2015-16 basketball season could end in just over a week. Or it could be just beginning.
The 18th-ranked, senior-laden Hawkeyes certainly have no plans to lose again.
“The ultimate goal is a national championship,” said senior forward Jarrod Uthoff, named a second-team all-American on Wednesday by The Sporting News. “What we just did before doesn’t mean a thing. It starts now. You lose, you’re done.”
Urgency is setting in for a 21-9 team that rose into the nation’s top five for a few weeks but slipped into a 20-day stretch between wins.
But first things first. Iowa needs to do something at this week’s Big Ten Conference Tournament it hasn’t done in 10 years: Get to Saturday.
Yes, this event — held this year at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers — has been one of dismay for Iowa since it won the Big Ten tourney in 2006 behind Greg Brunner, Adam Haluska and Jeff Horner.
Iowa is 2-9 in the last nine years in this tournament — not once making it to the Saturday semifinals on CBS, let alone the championship game. By comparison, Michigan State and Ohio State have been to seven Saturdays since 2007.
“We haven’t made a run in that tournament in this program in a while. It’s been a long time,” said senior center Adam Woodbury, a lifelong Hawkeye fan who grew up in Sioux City. “We’ve done some things this year that hadn’t been done in a while in the program, and hopefully this is going to be one of them.”
Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell have been on the floor for three crushing Big Ten tournament endings.
In 2013, the Hawkeyes were on the precipice of an NCAA Tournament bid and in control of a Friday night Big Ten quarterfinal against Michigan State, up 12 points in the second half, before things unraveled. The Hawkeyes, victims of some inconsistent officiating (to put it nicely), yielded a 22-2 run in a 59-56 loss. Two days later, Iowa was left out of the NCAA field of 68.
In 2014, Iowa was a No. 6 seed against Northwestern, a team it had beaten twice by a combined 52 points, but showed up flatter than a pancake and was stunned, 67-62.
And last year, the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes rolled into Chicago with a six-game winning streak but fell apart in the second half of a 67-58 loss to the Big Ten’s first-ever No. 13 seed, Penn State.
Unfinished business for these seniors, maybe?
“I think there is,” Gesell said. “One thing this senior class hasn’t done yet is win a championship. That’s what we’re looking to do, that’s one of our goals. We’re just going to go out there and play every possession like it’s going to win the game for us.”
Uthoff, who was sitting out as a transfer in 2013, takes a slightly different perspective, arguing that there’s always unfinished business to settle.
“If you step on the court ... you’re playing for a title,” Uthoff said. “It doesn’t matter what happened previous years.”
Playing well in Indianapolis matters. Iowa is currently projected as a No. 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes could play themselves to at least the 4 line with a strong showing here, and that would open up the possibility of first- and second-round games in nearby Des Moines.
Advice from Tom Izzo
So what will it take for Iowa to get to Saturday (and perhaps beyond)?
Well, to start, let’s examine a coach with a rich Big Ten tournament history: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Certainly, Izzo’s rosters have historically been either elite or very good. But set that aside, and here’s what he said is the recipe to advancing on back-to-back days.
“The biggest key,” he said, “is whether you can stay focused and attend to the little things.”
Should Iowa beat Illinois in Thursday’s 1:25 p.m. opener (to be televised on Big Ten Network), Izzo thinks Iowa might have one leg up on fourth-seeded Purdue, which will have been idle, in a Friday quarterfinal. The Hawkeyes swept two meetings vs. Purdue in January.
“There’s definitely an advantage for the team that played on Thursday on Friday. Now there’s not on Saturday. But I think on Friday, there is an advantage,” Izzo said. “You played on the court, you’re feeling good, everybody else has sat out.”
So, about those little things. Iowa has shown improvement in the last week in turnover margin. This is still a category in which Iowa ranks first in the Big Ten (at plus-2.9 a game). But during three straight losses to unranked teams Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Hawkeyes were a combined minus-11.
In last week’s games (an 81-78 loss to Big Ten champ Indiana and a 71-61 win at Michigan), Iowa reversed that to plus-18.
“And then you can't let the key guys that you're locking in on go crazy on you,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “So, take care of the ball, rebound, (play) defense, share the ball and then hopefully we can execute offensively.”
The Hawkeyes are confident they swallowed their Big Ten tourney medicine the last three years and are healthier as a result.
Gesell said he’s learned, “When tournament play comes around, you’ve got to bring it. … It’s unfortunate getting bounced out the first game the last two years, but I think we’re definitely a better team from it. This is a totally new team, too. I think we’ll be ready.”
Clemmons recalled, “The three years I have lost, we just got outplayed. The team that we lost to was just more hungry for that win.”
There was a lot to learn in Iowa’s recent four-game slide, too. Iowa was in charge of the Big Ten, at 10-1 and 11-2. What Iowa failed to do after that is something that could be corrected with a four-day, four-game run.
“When we were rolling, we were taking things one game at a time,” Clemmons said. “Once we started looking ahead, that’s when things starting to go downhill. We just lost focus.
“That’s the goal (in Indy). You have to take it one game at a time. You can’t look at the championship game.”
Uthoff provided a a succinct, six-word analysis regarding Iowa’s chances this week:
“We’re going to go win it.”
FAMILIAR NAMES ON BIG STAGE
Since winning the Big Ten tournament title in 2006, Iowa hasn’t reached the league semifinals. A look at how many Saturday (semifinal) appearances Big Ten teams have made in the past nine seasons:
7: Michigan State, Ohio State
4: Illinois, Purdue
1: Indiana, Maryland (joined 2014-15), Penn State
0: Iowa, Nebraska (joined 2011-12), Northwestern, Rutgers (joined 2014-15)
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE (all times CT)
No. 12 Illinois 85, No. 13 Minnesota 52
No. 11 Nebraska 89, No. 14 Rutgers 72
No. 9 Northwestern vs. No. 8 Michigan (11 a.m., BTN)
Illinois vs. No. 5 Iowa (approx 1:25 p.m., BTN)
No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 7 Ohio State (5:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Nebraska winner vs. No. 6 Wisconsin (approx 7:55 p.m., ESPN2)
Northwestern/Michigan vs. No. 1 Indiana (11 a.m., ESPN)
Illinois/Iowa vs. No. 4 Purdue (approx 1:25 p.m., ESPN)
Penn State/Ohio State vs. No. 2 Michigan State (5:30 p.m., BTN)
Nebraska/Wisconsin vs. No. 3 Maryland (approx 7:55 p.m., BTN)
Noon and approx. 2:25 p.m., CBS
2 p.m., CBS (NCAA Selection Show follows at 4:30)