IOWA CITY, Iowa – A friendly battle is now being waged in response to the Iowa men’s basketball team having won nine games in a row.
On one side is the media, eager to embrace the big picture and to reflect on each milestone along the way.
On the other side are the Iowa players and head coach Fran McCaffery, who refuse to embrace anything but the next challenge facing them.
McCaffery and his players seem unfazed by what they’re doing this season, almost oblivious to it.
In addition to sweeping a talented Purdue squad with an 83-71 victory on Sunday, the Hawkeyes also improved to 7-0 in the Big Ten for just the second time in school history.
The only other time it happened was in 1970 when Ralph Miller led his dynamic “Six Pack” squad to a 14-0 record in the Big Ten.
First, it was the Iowa football team finishing the regular season with a 12-0 record, and now the Iowa men’s basketball team is taking fans on a historic ride whose conclusion is fun to imagine.
The chatter after Sunday’s victory focused mostly on the rankings and how high Iowa would climb in the polls.
“I think we stay away from looking at what we’re ranked because the only ranking that matters is at the end of the year,” said senior forward Jarrod Uthoff, who led four Iowa players in double figures on Sunday with 22 points.
Uthoff then was asked if he felt any pressure with being in the Big Ten’s driver seat at this stage. Iowa and Indiana, which is also 7-0 in the Big Ten, are the only Big Ten teams still undefeated in conference play.
“No pressure,” Uthoff said. “We came in this year for a Big Ten championship and looking forward to playing for a national championship. That goal has not changed.”
When is the last time an Iowa men’s basketball player could talk about competing for a national title and have nobody question his sanity?
Other than Iowa’s improbable march to the 1980 Final Four, you’d probably have to go all the way back to the "Six Pack" for that conversation to have any credibility.
The current team is venturing into mostly uncharted territory as it climbs up the polls. Iowa’s No. 9 ranking is its highest under McCaffery and the highest since Iowa was ranked seventh in 2001.
The Hawkeyes are likely to climb above seventh in the next rankings, but that will only add fuel to the fire that awaits them on Thursday in College Park, Md.
Maryland was considered by many as the favorite to win the Big Ten this season under head coach Mark Turgeon. That still could happen, but the Terrapins already trail Iowa by two games in the loss column.
McCaffery was asked after Sunday’s victory what his message will be moving forward and how he plans to keep the players grounded amid the growing hype.
“The message will never change,” McCaffery said. “But I think we look at it pragmatically. We go on the road to play Maryland on Thursday. That in and of itself is going to keep you grounded. I mean, they’re incredibly talented.
“They’re having a great year. It’s a terrific venue to play in. I’ve coached there. And I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Turgeon and the job that he’s done. We’ve got our hands full. Like we always say, enjoy this today. Tomorrow we’ll go to work.”
They’ll go back to work, leaving fans and the media to look at the big picture because rarely has it looked better.
This is starting feel like football all over again, one victory at a time.
Iowa has won 13 Big Ten regular-season games in row dating back to last season.
To put that in perspective, Iowa only won 15 Big Ten games during three seasons combined under former head coach Todd Lickliter.
The program was in shambles when McCaffery replaced Licklilter in March 2010.
Under McCaffery, though, it’s been on a steady ascent, each season better than the previous season.
The pieces all seem to be in place this season, most notably senior leadership. Maybe we should’ve seen this coming, considering Iowa’s level of experience.
There aren’t many college teams that have the luxury of starting four seniors and a junior.
Combine the experience with this being arguably Iowa’s best perimeter shooting team in quite a while and you have a recipe for success. Iowa made 11-of-20 3-point baskets in Sunday’s game, which is almost par for the course.
Iowa’s depth also has improved to the point where Purdue coach Matt Painter called it a strength after Sunday’s game. Sophomore forward Dom Uhl and redshirt freshman shooting guard Brady Ellingson both scored eight points off the bench for Iowa.
“The thing I will say about Iowa, a lot of good teams, they don’t want to get to their bench, they just don’t,” Painter said. “These guys don’t have much of a drop-off.
“In fact, against teams like us, they improve, sometimes, when they sub.”
Iowa has earned the right to be called a good team. Now it’s just a matter of how good?
We’ll eventually have our answer. But until then, let the friendly battle wage on between the media promoting the hype and the Iowa players ignoring it.