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Pat Harty: Would a matchup with UCLA light a fire under Hawks?

[ 0 ] March 15, 2014 |

Memo to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Selection Committee:

Considering that ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi still has the Iowa Hawkeyes making your field of 68 teams, I wrote this assuming they’re in because he didn’t earn the nickname Mr. Bracketologist for nothing.

As you well know, the Hawkeyes are hurting right now with six losses in their last seven games. It’s a good thing your committee looks at a team’s whole body of work because Iowa wouldn’t make your tournament otherwise.

Iowa’s 67-62 loss to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday was probably the low point to a season now suddenly filled with low points. Or maybe it was the 66-63 loss to Illinois on Senior Day on March 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

It doesn’t really matter. Iowa is in a serious funk that nobody saw coming in early February when the Hawkeyes were 18-6 overall and just one loss out of first place in the Big Ten standings.

A month ago, Iowa looked like a team that could make a deep run in your tournament, led by its depth, size and versatility. Iowa now looks like a team on life support, reduced to being a sieve on defense and the Devyn Marble show on offense.

The team desperately needs something to light a spark before it’s too late. You’d like to think that the program’s first NCAA bid in eight years would be enough, but I’m not so sure after watching Iowa lose to Northwestern and Illinois in the last two games.

What Iowa needs is to be matched against Steve Alford’s UCLA Bruins in the first round of your tournament. If there is anything that could breathe life into the Iowa players, it’s a showdown against the most storied program in the history of college basketball and against a coach who is despised by many Iowa fans after his tumultuous eight-year reign in Iowa City.

Former Iowa coach Steve Alford now leads the UCLA program.

Former Iowa coach Steve Alford now leads the UCLA program. USA TODAY SPORTS PHOTO

It has drama written all over it, assuming the Hawkeyes show up to play. If not, Alford’s team of former high school all-Americans likely would administer a beat down.

And my guess is they will show up ready to play. The thought of losing to Alford would cause the Iowa players to dig deep and perform at their highest level. It also would re-energize the disgruntled Iowa fans and help them rally behind the team.

The last thing your committee wants is the same Iowa team that unraveled down the stretch playing in your tournament. The team that lost to Northwestern is a one-and-done waiting to happen in your event.

But the Iowa team that whipped Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan by 18 points on Feb. 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena could hang with anybody in your field.

If that team shows up against the Bruins, you could have a scintillating first-round matchup and one of the best story lines in the tournament.

It also makes sense from a seeding standpoint, given how much Iowa has slipped recently, perhaps down to an 11 seed.

The days leading up to the game would be newsworthy because Alford probably would say something that rubs Iowa fans the wrong way. He has a gift for doing that.

I understand there is a risk involved with this request, the risk of losing to Alford and to his son, Bryce Alford, who is a freshman guard for the Bruins. A loss to any team coached by Alford would make an already bad situation worse. Some Iowa fans probably would object to playing UCLA because they assume the slumping Hawkeyes would lose and can’t stomach the thought of Alford winning at their expense.

Iowa would have to improve defensively in a hurry or the younger Alford might shred them from 3-point range. I’ve watched Bryce play enough to appreciate his talent. He looks quicker than his father did and he can fill it up from 3-point range.

Steve Alford inherited a program rich in talent, but to his credit, he’s made the whole as good as the parts.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, on the other hand, inherited an Iowa program with hardly any talent in 2010 and has steadily been adding pieces to his rebuilding puzzle. The pieces were thought to be in place for Iowa to contend for a Big Ten regular-season title this winter, but it didn’t happen.

This probably is asking for too much, but it also would be a nice gesture by your committee to place Iowa in one of the Midwest brackets in order for more fans to attend the game. I’m guessing that some Iowa fans would travel to either Milwaukee or St. Louis just for the chance to see Alford fail against his former employer.

A victory over UCLA might seem like a long shot, but anything can happen as evidenced by Iowa losing its last two games against double-figure underdogs.

Playing UCLA would bring high risk, but even higher reward if somehow Iowa were to prevail. Alford’s post-game comments win or lose also would be priceless.

So please, make this happen. It’s too good to pass up.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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