Brown: Iowa's no-doubt NCAA bid a crucial program step

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Let's try and put Iowa's bid to the NCAA basketball tournament in perspective. Especially with last week's subpar showing at the Big Ten Tournament fresh on everyone's mind.

The Hawkeyes' No. 7 seed doesn't scream "national championship contender." But this is a program that won just 11 games five seasons ago. A program that has made progress in each of Fran McCaffery's five seasons as coach. One that has climbed from four straight long and losing years to a second straight NCAA bid and third-straight 20-win season.

"You hope to make progress every year," McCaffery said Sunday, after learning his team would play Davidson in a second-round game Friday in Seattle. "It's not always easy. Especially at this level."

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From four Big Ten wins in 2010-11 to a dozen of them this season. From 10th place to a tie for third in the Big Ten. That included seven true road wins and six straight victories to end the regular season, which hadn't happened since 1986-87.

"To win six games in a row in this league is really difficult, and speaks to what we're capable of," McCaffery said. "Now we've got to go out and perform well in the NCAA Tournament."

The NCAA bid earned McCaffery a two-year contract extension and a $150,000 raise next season, making him a $2 million man. That doesn't seen outlandish for a coach who inherited a program at rock bottom and made it relevant again.

A No. 7 seed beats the heck out of going nowhere. Or the NIT. Or the First Four in Dayton.

McCaffery's rebuilding project has been patient by design. No shortcuts, building for the long haul.

The proof is in the progress.

Before the year started, I said that 2014-15 would be a true measuring stick of whether last season's first NCAA bid since 2006 was a fluke or a sign that this program had some shelf life. That's because Iowa lost three players last season — Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe — who compiled 409 games, 244 starts and 3,694 points.

Sunday, we got confirmation of our answer. Each year has been another step up the ladder. A step closer to reaching up and cutting down the nets.

But those steps get tougher to scale the closer you get to the top. It's a lot easier to fall back than keep climbing. There's a lot of work left to be done before this team is Big Ten title-worthy.

Improving the level of talent recruited into the program is one way to keep moving forward. The coaching staff needs to ride the program's momentum and do that. They must also solve spells of inconsistent play that followed this team, and find an answer to first-round flame-outs in the Big Ten Tournament the past two seasons.

But the progress is undeniable.

Fourteen years ago Sunday, Iowa beat Creighton in an NCAA Tournament game in Uniondale, N.Y., 69-56. A Hawkeye team hasn't won an NCAA game since.

For this Iowa team, there's one more way to improve their place in history. It's beating Davidson on Friday.

"This is where memories are made," Iowa senior forward Aaron White said. "You can put your name in the history book. It hasn't happened in 14 years. So it's something I definitely have my sights on."

Another step up the ladder.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.