Iowa men's basketball seniors seek one more home win that carries Big Ten implications

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

While the outside world is consumed with Big Ten Tournament scenarios and potential NCAA Tournament seeding, the Iowa men's basketball team is focused on a task that's more urgent.

"All we're thinking about right now is Nebraska on Sunday," coach Fran McCaffery said. "We'll deal with the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday evening, I guess."

Iowa's (19-11, 11-8 Big Ten) next game and postseason implications go hand-in-hand. The Hawkeyes can secure the No. 2 seed in the upcoming conference tournament (the highest in McCaffery's tenure) with a win. If there were a need for more motivation, it's Iowa's senior day and two important team leaders, fifth-year Connor McCaffery and sixth-year Filip Rebraca, are hoping for a strong finish at home.

"I can't imagine a better fit for a guy who transferred than Filip Rebraca," Fran McCaffery said. "Not only in terms of arriving when we really needed, what he brought to the table, but how he fits with our style of play, with his teammates in this league. ... He personifies class in everything that he does."

Sunday will be Connor McCaffery's second senior day after participating in the ceremony last season and later deciding to use his final year of eligibility.

"I'm just so thrilled that he came back because he was looking at his options," Fran McCaffery said. "He graduated with two degrees, and his thought process was, 'Am I going to go into the business world, am I going to start my coaching career, do I keep playing?' and obviously he's been incredibly impactful with this team, especially with the injuries that we've had and really being an incredible leader along with Filip in that locker room."

Sunday will be the second meeting this season between the border rivals and the first meeting is still a sore spot for the Hawkeyes. They fell to the Cornhuskers (15-15, 8-11) in late December by a 66-50 margin in Lincoln. Iowa shot just 26% from the field, lost the rebounding battle by 14 and were -8 in turnover margin.

When asked what Iowa needs to do better on Sunday for a win, Fran McCaffery replied "everything." And it's worth noting that Nebraska is playing well down the stretch, winning five of its last seven games.

"They're playing really well," Connor McCaffery said. "I've gotten texts from friends saying don't overlook them, like I know. We weren't overlooking them the last time and they beat us by 20 points ... it was embarrassing."

Iowa players Connor McCaffery (30) and Filip Rebraca (0) will be honored at the Hawkeyes senior day game against Nebraska on Sunday.

A win on Sunday would be the exclamation point on a closing stretch that's drawing similarities to last season. The Hawkeyes built momentum throughout the month of February en route to a Big Ten Tournament title last year. February 2023 was rockier but back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Indiana have righted the ship.

Coach McCaffery and players noted that their turnaround from a 0-3 start in conference play to a potential second-place finish is a product of their resiliency. And there's a concerted effort within the program to ensure that there's not a letdown in the regular-season finale.

"We know what this game means," Rebraca said. "It's a bit of both: We want the No. 2 seed and we want to get them back from the last game. I'd say our focus level is at an all-time high and it should be like that because you want to build right before you get into the tournament games. And I feel like we're hitting our stride."