Hawkeyes embrace shot at Sweet 16 history

Chad Leistikow
Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff gets his teammates fired up prior to the NCAA Tournament opener against Temple on Friday.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury were 5 years old the last time the Iowa men’s basketball team reached a Sweet 16. Anthony Clemmons was 4.

The Hawkeyes’ four senior starters are a Sunday win against Villanova away from reaching what’s become hallowed ground for this program. Iowa’s last NCAA Tournament trip beyond the opening weekend was in 1999; before that, you have to go back to Tom Davis' second team at Iowa in 1988.

Opportunities like this don’t happen every year.

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“I’m getting old now. It’s been awhile,” said Woodbury, the hero of Friday’s buzzer-beating, 72-70 overtime win against Temple. “I’m excited about helping our program get to new heights.”

Sweet 16s can shape a program. Iowa’s 11:10 a.m. CT opponent knows that. Villanova has been a No. 1 or 2 seed three times in the last six years but each time failed to advance past the round of 32.

The question dogs Jay Wright’s veteran roster that has won 112 games in the past four seasons, including a 30-5 record this year.

“They’re going to be the winningest class in Villanova history and they’re going to get a Sweet 16 or they’re not,” Wright said, “and they’re going to be the winningest class in Villanova history and didn’t get past the second round.”

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The Wildcats are again a No. 2 seed; Iowa is a No. 7 and a 7-point underdog.

Both programs have a lot on the line.

“A program like Iowa, you’re on the national stage, you expect to contend for the NCAA Tournament each year,” Hawkeye star Jarrod Uthoff said, “and you expect to win.”

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Iowa has qualified for 16 Big Dances. Only three of them got past the first weekend. It’s hard to do.

But for Iowa and coach Fran McCaffery, it would mark the next step in a program resuscitation. In McCaffery’s second year after taking over for the failed Todd Lickliter, the Hawkeyes reached the NIT. The next year, the season ended in the NIT championship game. The next year, it ended in the NCAA Tournament First Four. Last year, Iowa won its first NCAA game in 14 years but the road ended after that as it lost handily in the second round to second-seeded Gonzaga.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, wearing Hawkeye apparel at the Barclays Center on Saturday, is proud of not only what McCaffery has accomplished but the way he’s done it – measured by the four aforementioned seniors who have 89 career wins.

“In any sport, just keep building a strong, strong foundation,” Barta said. “Then you can go on to have special years. The Sweet 16 is just another step.

“Every sport has ups and downs. Fran’s doing a great job, and he’s doing exactly what he set out to do. And now we just keep building.”

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A Sweet 16 trip would erase the season-ending slide of this year’s team, which lost five of six games entering the tournament.

To get there will undoubtedly take one of Iowa’s finest performances of the season.

The Hawkeyes can’t shoot 34.8 percent like they did Friday against Temple. This Villanova team is high-powered (47.1 percent shooting) and balanced on offense (five players average at least 9.9 points a game) yet plays excellent defense (holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting for the year).

Assistant coach Andrew Francis said Villanova compares in many ways to Big Ten Conference regular-season champion Indiana. Junior guard Peter Jok compared it to Michigan, because three-fourths of the Wildcats’ eight-man rotation can shoot the 3-pointer.

McCaffery said Villanova might be like Maryland or Michigan State, too, then conceded: “Villanova is, quite frankly, unique to anybody else that we played.”

Francis, a former aide under Wright, was assigned to  scout Villanova.

“Offensively, a lot of their stuff is predicated on spacing, movement, dribble penetration, getting the defense to suck in and collapse, creating a scramble situation defensively,” Francis said. “They move the ball. Very unselfish team.”

Josh Hart (6-5, 202) is the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 15.3 points a game. He shoots better than 50 percent.

Kris Jenkins (6-6, 240) has been their best player of late, averaging almost 20 points in their last 10 games.

Daniel Ochefu (6-11, 245) is the space-eater in the middle who averages nearly a double-double.

And you may remember the name Ryan Arcidiacono (6-3, 195). The now-senior guard’s sharpshooting was instrumental in leading Villanova past Iowa two seasons ago, 88-83, in a tournament in the Bahamas.

“They’re a great team. They play a lot of five guards at a time. They were No. 1 in the nation (earlier this season) for a reason,” Jok said. “They play kind of like Michigan. We’ve got a game plan for them, and I think we’ll be ready.”

Iowa has a 1-8 record in second-round NCAA games since 1989.

The current players are ready to write a new chapter in Iowa history, buoyed by a renewed confidence from beating Temple.

“Everybody in an Iowa jersey will appreciate the opportunity,” Clemmons said, “and cherish the moment we have.”


Matchup: South Region second round, No. 2 Villanova (30-5) vs. No. 7 Iowa (22-10)

When, where: 11:10 a.m. CT, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.

TV: CBS (Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel)

The line: Villanova is favored by 7 points

The winner gets: No. 3 seed Miami (Fla.) on Thursday in Louisville, Ky.