Hawkeye seniors have one more chance to rewrite legacies

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As we wait to hear what fate the 10-member NCAA Selection Committee imposes on the Iowa basketball team Sunday, remember this: The Hawkeyes will deserve what they get.

But the real question, after they are assigned a No. 6 or No. 7 seed: How far can they go?

This Iowa team has shown it can beat some of the best teams in the country, sometimes resoundingly — including by 17 points at Michigan State (with Denzel Valentine, by the way). But this Iowa team has also shown it can be befuddled by some of the worst teams in its own conference — including in Thursday’s 68-66 Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois.

You’ve probably had friends or family members ask you: Why does a team that did so well in January look so average now? The answer is between the ears.

Even Fran McCaffery acknowledged there was an issue with the team’s confidence after Thursday’s game.

“It’s obviously not what it was a month ago,” the Iowa coach said, “but I still think we believe in ourselves. We’ve got an experienced team.”

That’s true. And that’s why there’s still a chance this veteran group of Hawkeyes could make their fan base proud in the coming weeks. Conversely, they are one more quick loss away from completing one of the most disappointing collapses in school history.

Iowa's Mike Gesell takes the ball down court during the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois at the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

Right now, it’s hard for fans and players alike to accept going from the clear Big Ten favorite at the 60 and 70 percent marks of the conference season to not even making the final eight of the league tournament.

But legacies are defined almost solely in the NCAA Tournament. The 1980 Hawkeyes had a slightly above-average regular season, going 10-8 in Big Ten play. But many Iowa fans not even born in 1980 could tell you today that Steve Waite’s late three-point play against Georgetown sent the Hawkeyes to that year’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

In 2014, do you remember Connecticut as the team that won a national championship, or the one that went 12-6 in conference play (as Iowa did) and received a No. 7 seed in its region (as Iowa might)?

The Big Dance shapes every legacy narrative, a perspective Iowa senior Jarrod Uthoff was grasping amid severe disappointment Thursday.

“We still have the capability to win a national championship. That hasn’t gone away. That’s the reality of the situation,” the all-American forward said. "We’ve worked all this time to get into the tournament, to put yourself in a good place in the tournament.

"All bets are off then.”

Mike Gesell said afterward that he and the other three seniors — Uthoff, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury — had a tournament to win. That’d be the one that starts either Thursday or Friday, in someplace like St. Louis or Oklahoma City or Providence, R.I., or even Spokane, Wash.

“We’re going to start over,” McCaffery said.

Sure, the reset button is harder to find after losses in six of eight games. And this senior class has struggled to close out tight regular-season games, let alone those with tournament-level intensity. Yet this Hawkeye team has the highest upside of any since 1989. And that’s why this NCAA Tournament now becomes such a legacy-defining event.

“We have fight. We just have to put a whole 40 minutes together,” Clemmons said. “We have to come out ready in the beginning. We have to be us. That’s confident. We came into this season confident. It’s not the time to relax now.”

Let’s just say it: Unless the Hawkeyes make (at minimum) the Sweet 16 for the first time in 17 years, this season will be remembered as a lost opportunity.

Can it be done? Sure. Is there enough time to rally the troops? Not so sure.

The first thing to help is a good draw, which is a lot to ask if you’re a 7 seed, for example. You’re almost certainly playing one of the top eight teams in the country to make the Sweet 16, and that’s only if you win a virtual toss-up game in the first round.

It’s also about getting hot. Iowa pumped in 10-plus 3-pointers in four consecutive games in January. No wonder Iowa began the season 7-0 in the Big Ten.

But the Hawkeyes haven’t hit 10 3s in any of the past 12 games.

They can do it. But they only get one more chance.

“It’s March, NCAA Tournament now. It’s do-or-die, so kill or be killed. If that doesn’t motivate guys, I don’t know what will,” said junior Peter Jok, who embodies the streaky ability of this team — he scored 27 points in less than 12 minutes against Illinois. “I’m just trying to stay positive myself and get everybody to stay positive. I think we’ve got to regroup ourselves individually and as a team, and I think we’ll be good.”