Iowa basketball had a February to remember, but what happens next is most important

IOWA CITY — At the 2:48 mark in the second half Monday, a moment six years in the making came to fruition.

Iowa senior guard Jordan Bohannon received his final curtain call in front of Iowa's home crowd in a 82-61 blowout of Northwestern. It was a near-perfect night for Bohannon, who scored 18 points, and fellow seniors Austin Ash and Connor McCaffery, who had signature moments of their own in Iowa's 21st win of the season. 

Still, Bohannon took exception to what was said as he left the court. 

"A lot of people were saying 'great career' when I was walking off the court," Bohannon said. "I was like, 'There's still a lot left here.' We have a lot of games to be played and a lot of memories to make. I came back to try to get this team to places that no one thought we could be. I think Connor (McCaffery) would say the same thing, Keegan (Murray) would say the same thing.

"We still have a lot left for everyone that's in there. We continue to fight every day and prove to each other that we are really together and deserve to be one of the best teams in the country." 

Shortly after, Connor McCaffery and Ash echoed Bohannon's sentiments about what's next for Iowa's team after one of the most successful Februarys of coach Fran McCaffery's tenure. About this time one month ago, Iowa dropped a double-overtime road contest to Penn State, its third loss in four games.

Now, Northwestern coach Chris Collins said, Iowa is as dangerous as any team nationally. 

"You can see their confidence right now is sky high," Collins said. "They're not a team that I think anyone wants to play right now. They're probably as hot a team as there is in the conference and they're peaking at the right time." 

The Hawkeyes won seven of eight games by an average margin of victory of 18 points and are squarely in the mix for a top-four finish in the Big Ten standings. And Monday night's win was the exclamation point. Looking ahead, each game from here on out holds heavy significance. 

Iowa has two road games to close out the regular season, at Michigan on Thursday and at No. 20 Illinois on Sunday. Both teams have beaten the Hawkeyes this year, Michigan most recently on Feb. 17. A strong finish would help set the stage for the postseason run that Bohannon and other team leaders envision. 

Related:Iowa basketball's furious rally falls short in deflating home loss to Michigan

Iowa men's basketball finished February with a 7-1 record and can continue to improve its NCAA Tournament resume in early March.

Nebraska's 78-70 upset win over Ohio State on Tuesday night moved Iowa up to fourth place in the Big Ten standings. Both teams are 11-7 but Iowa holds the tiebreaker. A fourth-place finish or higher gives Iowa a coveted double bye in the Big Ten tournament. In that scenario, one win would punch a ticket to the semifinal game for just the second time in the Fran McCaffery tenure.

The last two games also have NCAA Tournament implications. Iowa is an 8-seed in USA Today's latest bracketology projections. Illinois and Michigan would qualify as Quad 1 wins according to the current NET rankings. Iowa possesses only one Quad 1 win (Feb. 19 at Ohio State), so adding one or two more to end the regular season surely would help Iowa rise in seeding. And that could be the difference in facing a No. 1 seed or a more manageable No. 3 seed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. 

More:Iowa men's basketball enters coaches poll, moves up in AP Top 25 after third straight win

But it all starts with redemption in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Thursday night. The Hawkeyes' 84-79 loss to the Wolverines was their last setback prior to their current four-game win streak. Michigan is desperate for a win, too. The Wolverines are among the "Last 4 in" in NCAA Tournament projections and need a quality win to help solidify their positioning. 

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon reacts after making a 3-point basket against Northwestern on Monday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The Hawkeyes, with as much momentum as any team in the country, are confident entering their biggest test of the season. 

"I think we're ready," Connor McCaffery said after the Northwestern game. "Obviously two tough games leading into the Big Ten tournament and everyone knows that. We know we're going to have to play well and we could go up there, play well and lose. But we know that we're still using these days to get better. The end goal is the NCAA Tournament and we expect to go in and win but we need to be firing on all cylinders. We need guys playing hard, focus to the game plan, locked in offensively and defensively.

"I'm excited. That's why we come here and play the games." 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.