INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When Selection Sunday was rapidly approaching last season, Iowa basketball fans were having a debate: which is better, a one-and-done appearance in the NCAA Tournament or a deep run in the NIT?
It was a split decision. A year later, that debate is silent. After 15 weeks in the Associated Press Top 25, including one in the Top 10, the strung-together letters N, I and T were not part of the vocabulary.
On Feb. 8, Iowa played what coach Fran McCaffery called its best game of the season in an 85-67 rout of No. 10 Michigan, a game the Hawkeyes led by as many as 27 points. Hard to believe that this team has won just twice since then.
Iowa basketball hasn’t experienced this kind of freefall since the 2001-02 season. That team, led by Reggie Evans and Luke Recker, was ranked for the first 10 weeks of the season, including five weeks in the Top 10, and finished the season in the NIT after losing 10 of their last 13 regular-season games.
That team showed some last-ditch grit by reaching the title game of the Big Ten Tournament, getting back-to-back buzzer beaters from Recker to knock off Wisconsin and Indiana in the quarterfinals and semifinals. But a final loss to Ohio State erased any NCAA dream.
Along came this season, inflated with hype and promise. Finally, this was the team that would return to the program to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Iowa was 18-6 after taking down the Wolverines, a team that won the Big Ten title by three games. A return to the NCAAs still looks probable, but does anyone have confidence that these Hawkeyes can win an NCAA game for the first time since 2001 after six losses in the last seven games?
Especially after Thursday’s shocking 67-62 loss to Northwestern, a team Iowa had handled by 93-67 and 76-50 margins during the regular season?
McCaffery called his team fragile after a 66-63 loss to Illinois after the regular-season finale March 8. The Big Ten Tournament came as an opportunity for a second wind.
How did we get here? Some things are obvious – a lack of defense and rebounding, for starters.
“When you’re losing, it’s never one thing,” McCaffery said.
But maybe there’s more. Maybe there are issues in the locker room, a team fracture if you will. These things happen in times of adversity, different factions pulling in opposite directions while trying to keep the ship afloat.
“We’ll stay positive as coaches, but we’ll stay positive with one another,” McCaffery said. “You can’t start pointing fingers and blaming each other. My conversation after the game was very positive with regard to that because I believe in this team and the character we have in that locker room.”
On the floor, Iowa can’t stop opponents when it matters most. The Wildcats shot 52.3 percent from the field, its best night this season against a Big Ten opponent. In the last seven games, opponents have shot 50 percent or better in 11 of 14 halves.
Iowa led the Big Ten this season in scoring, doing it with an up-tempo attack fueled by transition basketball. But when the Hawkeyes can’t stop the opponent on defense, the tempo slows down. And Iowa’s strength is not half-court offense.
The Hawkeyes scored a season-low 63 points in last week’s loss to Illinois, and set another new low Thursday.
Devyn Marble, who eclipsed the 20-point mark for the sixth time in seven games, looks like the only player who can create his own shot. And when Iowa’s ball movement does lead to open shots, they’re not going in with the same frequency as the opponent.
The Hawkeyes missed all nine 3-point attempts in the second half Thursday. Northwestern was 6-for-11. That’s an 18-point hole that would be problematic for anyone.
Iowa shot at least 50 percent in just two Big Ten games this season. Both were against Northwestern. Thursday, the Hawkeyes shot 32.3 percent against the Wildcats, their worst effort of the Big Ten season.
Tie it all together, and it’s not a pretty picture. Last season, Iowa went on that deep NIT run, reeling off four wins before a title game loss to Baylor. This season was going to be viewed as a failure unless McCaffery’s fourth team added its name to Iowa’s once-commonplace NCAA legacy.
The school’s 23rd NCAA bid should arrive on Sunday. It’s a journey that started when seniors Marble, Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe joined the program in the aftermath of a 10-22 season.
But one only had to watch McCabe pound his fist into a chair once, twice, three times, four, after Thursday’s loss was assured, to see that March Madness has an entirely different meaning in Iowa City.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.