IOWA CITY, Iowa – We were about halfway through our podcast on Wednesday when a man from Minnesota called to remind Hawkeye fans just how good they have it right now.
The man said he lives his life surrounded by Gopher fans who are frustrated and losing hope that Richard Pitino is the second coming of his father as a college basketball coach.
So this call wasn’t even about the 12-2 Iowa football, but rather just basketball.
The caller wanted Iowa fans to appreciate what they have right now in men’s basketball because the situation could be much worse; case in point being the Gophers, who lost to Northwestern 77-52 at home on Sunday, falling to 6-10 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten.
Iowa is currently one of just two Big Ten teams still undefeated in conference play at 3-0 and 12-3 overall. Indiana is the other.
That could change in a hurry with Iowa preparing to face Michigan State on Thursday at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich., a place where the Hawkeyes haven’t won since 1993.
But even with a loss, Iowa still would be in the thick of the Big Ten race and on course to make the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season under head coach Fran McCaffery, whereas the Gophers might be on a collision course with Rutgers to determine the worst team in the conference.
McCaffery had a losing record in his first season as the Iowa coach. But each of his last four teams have finished with winning records and improved from the season before.
For that pattern to continue this season, Iowa would have to make the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 after winning an NCAA Tournament game last season for the first time since 2001.
Barring injuries to key players, a trip to the Sweet 16 is certainly within Iowa’s reach.
Like the caller said, there is so much to like about this Iowa team. You name it and the Hawkeyes have it this season, including size, versatility, and more than anything, experience.
“I think we have the experience now that the environment is not going to get to us,” Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell said of playing at the Breslin Center. “It’s a lot of fun to play there. This is one of the reasons why you sign up to play college basketball is to get to play in game like this and get to go into environments like that.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for our team.”
With plenty more to come.
That’s the beauty of college basketball in that one loss doesn’t alter the course of a season. Iowa has created some early wiggle room by winning its first three conference games.
Another reason the caller said to appreciate the current Iowa team is that a big chunk of it won’t be around after this season. Four of Iowa’s five starters are taking their final lap around the Big Ten as seniors.
We probably won’t truly appreciate their value until they’re gone because even scientists have suggested that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
The absence of the four seniors also could make winning more difficult next season. That’s even more reason, the caller said, to appreciate this season.
So is the fact that Iowa has been in Minnesota’s hapless situation not so long ago, less than six years ago to be precise.
Iowa had one of the worst programs in the Big Ten when McCaffery inherited the mess created by his predecessor, Todd Lickliter, in March 2010. It only took three seasons under Lickliter for Iowa to go from being slightly above average to horrible.
And now look at how quickly Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4) has sunk to being average after finishing no lower than fourth place in the Big Ten for 14 consecutive seasons under the recently retired Bo Ryan. Interim coach Greg Gard still has plenty of time to right the ship, but it’s more a question of whether he has the talent to get it done.
Iowa without question has enough firepower to finish no lower than fourth in the conference this season. This might be Iowa’s best chance to win the Big Ten regular-season title in quite some time. It hasn’t happened since 1979.
The team showed that it has toughness by winning at Purdue 70-63 on Jan. 2. It’ll need that same toughness to compete with Michigan State at the Breslin Center.
“It’s being able to compete and just having toughness,” said Iowa senior forward Jarrod Uthoff. “Maybe some calls won’t go your way, maybe some rebounds won’t go your way. But you just have to fight.”
The fight won’t last forever, though. In about two months the season will be over.
So like the caller said, enjoy it while it lasts.