COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sunday was the biggest victory in coach Fran McCaffery’s four seasons as Iowa’s basketball coach. That is not up for debate.
“I think that’s a fair assessment,” McCaffery said after an 84-74 road victory over No. 3 Ohio State.
This program hasn’t had a victory this significant since 2006, when the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes beat No. 7 Ohio State in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament.
You remember 2006, right? The last time an Iowa team has played in the NCAA Tournament. Do you remember 1978-79? That’s the last time the Hawkeyes have won at least a share of a regular-season Big Ten title.
This victory meant much more than the $200,000 salary bump McCaffery will get if he coaches Iowa into the NCAAs this March. Sunday was a statement game. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State all reside in the top 10, but Iowa is a legitimate Big Ten title contender.
“I thought we were already Big Ten contenders,” senior forward Melsahn Basabe said after his 15th career double-double helped his team get to the finish line. “This doesn’t change anything. We have supreme confidence in ourselves, and we believe we can beat any team we can face.”
Iowa finished 4-14 in the Big Ten before McCaffery arrived in the spring of 2010. Went 4-14 in his first season, too, after knocking off No. 6 Purdue in the final regular-season game.
“That was huge for momentum for our program, in terms of making a step,” McCaffery said.
Many steps have followed. The Hawkeyes are 3-1 in the league now and 14-3 overall. Their No. 20 national ranking should spike when the polls come out today.
This talk of championships, rankings and NCAA tournaments, once taken for granted, disappeared for a stretch that saw the program string together four straight losing seasons for the first time. Ever.
But McCaffery has made the Hawkeyes relevant again. The team has received a ton of national buzz, and that was before recording its first road victory over a top-five team since 2001, when Luke Recker and Reggie Evans had their way with No. 2 Missouri in Columbia.
The fact that Sunday’s game was carried on CBS — Iowa’s first national game on that network since the ’06-’07 season — will increase the Hawkeyes’ buzz factor.
This isn’t a team lacking in confidence, despite three lost opportunities against top-10 foes Iowa State, Villanova and Wisconsin. None of those setbacks came at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But they were chances to give the national buzz some credence. On Sunday, Iowa struck gold.
Junior forward Aaron White called it the biggest victory of his career. But statement win? He wasn’t so sure.
“It’s tough to say ‘statement win,’” White said. “Because that means you didn’t expect to win, and you surprised somebody.”
After a 74-70 loss at No. 4 Wisconsin a week ago, a game where McCaffery got ejected, White made a bold statement after he came out of the locker room.
“I’m sick and tired of losing to teams we’re better than,” White said.
White brought up that statement up to me again Sunday.
“People might not like how I said it, or when I said it,” White said. “That’s just the belief I have, and the confidence I have in both myself as a player and this team and the coaching staff. To prove it, and have it on CBS, is an added touch.”
McCaffery, as coaches are prone to do, was already looking ahead to the next one.
“I think we have a really good team,” McCaffery said. “Now, the challenge is, you got another one coming up.”
Iowa hosts Minnesota on Sunday.
“The league is brutal,” McCaffery said. “You can never get too up or too down.”
But this much is certain. Iowa has a team that can take punches. And deliver them.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @ByRickBrown.