Dark-horse Iowa's NCAA bracket filled with opportunity

Chad Leistikow
The Iowa Hawkeyes react as their name is called during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show Sunday on March 13 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Seventh-seeded Iowa plays No. 10 Temple on Friday in Brooklyn, New York.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Early in CBS’ way-too-long two-hour broadcast to unveil the NCAA Tournament bracket, Iowa’s name popped onto the screen.

A few moments later, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and the rest of the basketball-watching nation heard network analyst Clark Kellogg confidently pick the seventh-seeded Hawkeyes to advance to the Sweet 16.

“I think (Kellogg)’s one of the best in the business for what he does. Been that way for many, many years,” McCaffery said Sunday night after watching the announcement with his players at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Gotten to know him. I just appreciate his professionalism. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t believe it.”

Instantly, Iowa — a team that’s lost six of its last eight games — was a trendy pick to bust out of its pod in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Some people are going to bury us for the way we finished the season,” senior center Adam Woodbury said, “some people are going to pick us as a dark horse.”

So which way will this go?

Let’s examine.

To win multiple games, the 21-10 Hawkeyes first have to win one. Their first-round opponent at roughly 2:10 p.m. CT Friday at the Barclays Center is Temple, a 21-11 outfit that won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. But the Owls were still considered an NCAA bubble team, with their best quality wins coming about the same time Iowa’s did — beating tournament teams Cincinnati (Dec. 29) and Connecticut (Jan. 5) on the road.

Iowa players didn’t know much about Temple on Sunday night, but the coaching staff will have complete scouting information in their laps Monday.

“We’ll be ready for them,” Woodbury said. “We’re not going to take them lightly.”

As rough as the Hawkeyes’ last 3½ weeks have been, there’s a lot to like about their side of the bracket. As a No. 7 seed, they drew by far the lowest-rated 10 seed in Temple. The Owls, who rank 315th nationally in field-goal percentage, have a KenPom.com overall rating of No. 86 nationally, compared with fellow 10s VCU (35), Syracuse (41) and Pittsburgh (45).

Iowa had success in a similar situation a year ago. As a 7 seed, it trounced a smaller-conference regular-season champion in Davidson to advance to the round of 32 before falling to second-seeded Gonzaga in what was a virtual home game in Seattle.

A similar showing Friday by Iowa against Temple would likely set up a matchup with No. 2-seeded Villanova — certainly a potent foe, especially considering the Wildcats will be playing less than 2 hours from their Philadelphia-area campus.

But despite Villanova’s impressive 29-5 record, there are no quality wins outside of the Big East. The Wildcats outlasted the Hawkeyes, 88-83, two winters ago in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament — a sign that these teams could be competitive with each other again.

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If Kellogg is correct, that would send the Hawkeyes to the regional semifinal in Louisville, Ky. — where waiting would be a virtual toss-up game, or maybe one that sees them as a favorite. They might face No. 3-seeded Miami (Fla.), No. 6 Arizona or even 11th-seeded play-in foes Wichita State or Vanderbilt. Win that, and maybe it’s a memorable showdown with top-seeded Kansas or a rematch with fifth-seeded Maryland for a shot at the Final Four in Houston.

It’s easy to get hung up on what happened to the Hawkeyes lately, but this bracket presents a terrific second chance to rekindle the magic that they rode to the top five of the national polls in late January and early February.

Underdog seeds have made deep runs before. In the last six NCAA Tournaments, a total of 29 teams seeded sixth or below advanced to the Sweet 16. Five did it last year, including two No. 7 seeds — one of them, Michigan State, got to the Final Four.

Two years ago, seventh-seeded Connecticut won a national title. In 2012, No. 7 Florida made the Elite Eight.

So McCaffery, for good reason, said Sunday, “I don’t think really think much about seeding at all.”

He’s right. Iowa’s got a great opportunity to win its opener, then it would be a quality 40 minutes away from the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 17 years.

If Sunday’s first practice since Thursday’s deflating loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament was any indication, Hawkeye players are embracing the opportunity in front of them.

“We went (hard) at each other. Coach was positive. Players were positive,” Iowa junior Peter Jok said. “We’re all excited. I think we’re all excited, kind of like a fresh start.”

NCAA Tournament bracket central