Iowa basketball's next game, at Northwestern, is the biggest yet. What to watch for:
Shortly after Iowa men's basketball's 92-75 win over Ohio State on Thursday, the attention shifted to the next game. It's commonly said within the program that a win makes the next game bigger, and Sunday's road game at Northwestern is the Hawkeyes' biggest to date as the regular season nears an end.
Thursday night's win put Iowa in third place in the Big Ten Conference standings, one game behind Northwestern. A win on Sunday (5:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) would move the Hawkeyes into second place with five games remaining.
Iowa has dominated the series recently, winning nine straight games, but the upcoming game is likely the most challenging in recent memory. Senior Connor McCaffery noted that past games in Evanston were dominated by Hawkeye fans, but Welsh Ryan Arena won't be a safe haven on Sunday. The game is a sellout.
Northwestern has won four straight and seven of nine. Iowa beat the Wildcats 86-70 on Jan. 31 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"They beat (No. 3) Purdue and (No. 14) Indiana at home (within the last week)," McCaffery said after Thursday night's game. "I'm really excited going into this game, it's going to be a fun one. It looks like their home atmosphere has picked up … but hopefully we can still rival them with some black and gold."
The Hawkeyes (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten) looked to their last win on the road, at Minnesota on Feb. 12, as a potential turning point in performances away from home. Iowa is 3-5 on the road this season and three of its five remaining games (including Sunday) are away from home. Ebbs and flows are inevitable on the road, and coach Fran McCaffery said a great amount of preparation goes into game planning to ensure the team is prepared for every situation.
"We work on situations in practice," Fran McCaffery said. "Various scores, up and down at the press, mix in some zone or whatever just to help them understand, 'We got to play fast now or we got to play slower.’ Understand time and score ... do we have any timeouts, which way is the arrow pointing, who's in the game and who are we fouling.
"We work on that stuff all the time to make sure that they know and understand and then you just deal with it on the road at the time."
The best way to keep a hostile crowd at bay is consistent shot-making. Iowa, the Big Ten's leading offense, needs to carry over its strong execution from Thursday against the Big Ten's No. 3 defense. The Hawkeyes bested Ohio State by scoring on 41 of 65 possessions at a clip of 1.415 points per possession.
A common denominator between Thursday's win and Iowa's 86-70 win over Northwestern (19-7, 10-5) on Jan. 31 is that the Hawkeyes saw five different players reach double figures. It's going to take that same team effort to win on Sunday, and Fran McCaffery pointed out that it takes a special effort to reach that mark.
"You never know on any given day who's going to get hot," Fran McCaffery said. "Luckily for us, we have eight or nine guys that are capable of being in double figures. Oftentimes it's different people but it really comes down to your ability to move and share the ball and be unselfish. That's the only way we get five guys in doubles. You got to get the ball moving and have willing passers."
With each passing game, the stakes in the Big Ten rise. Nine teams are separated by just three games with a handful to go. McCaffery and his team understand that the margin for error is slim. But it's a challenge that the program is embracing.
"It's not easy playing on the road," Fran McCaffery said. "They have to perform, they have to perform under pressure and with a great deal of scrutiny. But they get to do that with their best friends, and competing is something that you have to embrace. Because if you didn't, you know, you wouldn't be at this level."