There is an overriding question hanging over Iowa’s basketball team: Will this be the one that returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006?
And while we’re at it, another question: Will this be the first Hawkeye team to win an NCAA game for the first time since 2001?
Right now, the odds are better than good. Iowa, 11-2, has been ranked in the media and coaches polls for six weeks and counting entering Tuesday’s Big Ten Conference opener against Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Eighteen games left. Eighteen games that require the utmost attention. Eighteen games that will define the season.
“I’ve got enough experience in that locker room to know and understand what that means in terms of preparation and execution,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “And we’ll be ready.”
All 11 players in McCaffery’s crowded rotation have scored in double figures at least once this season, and they’ve done it a collective 251 times in their careers. Seven different players have scored at least 19 points in a game. That is experience in numbers.
“We can’t look back at the games we lost,” junior forward Aaron White said. “We have to learn from our mistakes, but also remember the good things we did. I think we’re a confident bunch, playing at a high level. Everyone has had big games. Everyone has contributed. I think we’re in a great place and ready for this Big Ten season.”
Iowa’s only losses this season were to highly ranked Villanova on a neutral floor and at Iowa State. The Hawkeyes had double-digit leads in both games and couldn’t hold on. Gone are two opportunities to polish that NCAA resume.
Were they merely bumps in the road or the continuation of a troubling trend?
“We’ve got guys who have been there before,” senior guard Devyn Marble said. “We’re an experienced team. We’ve been battle-tested. We’re ready for the competition.”
McCaffery’s first victory over a top-25 foe as Iowa coach came in the final regular-season game of 2010-11, a 67-65 stunner over No. 6 Purdue. That ended a streak of 25 consecutive losses to ranked teams. In 2011-12, the Hawkeyes were 4-3 against rated foes. Last season, they were 0-7.
That included a 69-65 home loss to Indiana, when Marble missed 13 of 14 shots. And a 62-59 loss at home to Michigan State, a game Marble missed with an ankle sprain.
There was a 62-59 loss at Minnesota when Iowa was up two and allowed a 3-pointer with 11 seconds to go. Marble went scoreless in that one.
“We obviously blew an opportunity,” McCaffery said.
And there was that 59-56 loss to Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa was up by 10 with just under 9 minutes to play. The Spartans responded with a 20-2 run.
You get the point. You don’t need to win all those games. But you can’t lose all of them, either.
Now comes a new Big Ten slate, a fresh start to keep momentum from a solid nonconference season rolling. And a Big Ten slate that it tougher than last season, when Iowa was 9-9 despite all those close calls.
Last season, Iowa’s league schedule included just one game each against Michigan (the national runner-up), Ohio State (which reached the Elite Eight), Michigan State (a Sweet 16 team) and Illinois (which lost in the NCAA round of 32).
This year, Iowa’s one-plays are against Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue and Indiana.
We’ll know much more at the end of January, when eight Big Ten games will be in the books, including three against ranked foes — at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and home vs. Michigan State. There’s also a road game in there at Michigan, a team that will be without Mitch McGary but has plenty of pieces remaining from a team that thrashed the Hawkeyes in the second Big Ten game last season, 95-67.
So how does this turn into a season to remember? First off, Iowa will have to return to the defensive mindset it played with down the stretch last season. Iowa gave up more than 80 points just twice in 2012-13. It’s happened three times this season.
Secondly, free-throw shooting has been problematic. The team percentage of .735 is slightly ahead of last season’s .731. But Marble, who has gotten to the line 26 times more than any other Hawkeye, is shooting just .646 from the line. He shot .810 last season. And Mike Gesell is at .667, compared to .754 as a freshman.
Success at the line has been a staple under McCaffery.
Iowa has made more free throws, 286, than its opponents have attempted, 247.
And McCaffery will have to find a magic touch when it comes to playing 11 men.
Those 11 average between 14.4 and 25.9 minutes a game. Some will play significant minutes one game, not so many in another, depending on matchups.
McCaffery’s first three Iowa teams have shown significant improvement over the course of a season. If this team does that, with a few top-25 victories mixed in, there will be no bubble or angst on Selection Sunday.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball