Fifth-ranked Iowa crushes Northwestern 96-73 to complete season sweep
Iowa moves into tie for first place in Big Ten with Michigan
By Pat Harty
So much time has passed since the Iowa men’s basketball team last won a Big Ten regular-season title that it’s mind-boggling to think about what life was like nearly 42 years ago.
Well, for starters, I was a freshman in high school, parting my hair down the middle and hadn’t even seen my first Grateful Dead concert when Iowa last won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title in 1978-79.
Fran McCaffery was a sophomore point guard at the University of Pennsylvania the last time Iowa won a Big Ten regular-season title.
Hayden Fry still hadn’t coached the Iowa football team in a game.
Kirk Ferentz was 23 years old and teaching and coaching at Worchester Academy in Massachusetts.
Tim Dwight was 3 years old.
Led Zeppelin still was together as a rock band.
Members of the Rolling Stones were in their 30s, even drummer Charlie Watts, who was born in 1941.
The Rockford Files still was airing in prime time.
LeBron James was five years from being born.
Hawk Fanatic’s Tyler Devine was 12 years from being born.
Iowa All-America center Luka Garza was 19 years from being born.
ESPN still hadn’t been launched.
And social media was beyond our wildest imagination the last time the Iowa men’s basketball team won a Big Ten regular-season title.
I bring this up because the current Iowa team, which pounded Northwestern 96-73 on Sunday, and moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with Michigan, might have what it takes, physically and mentally, to finally end this embarrassing drought.
Iowa (12-2, 6-1 Big Ten) still has 13 conference games remaining, but there isn’t a team in the conference playing better, or more unselfishly, than the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes, who have now won five games in a row, including four by double figures.
Fran McCaffery, obviously, was pleased with his team’s performance, but he isn’t concerned about the Big Ten standings at this stage.
“I really don’t pay much attention to the standings,” McCaffery said after Sunday’s victory. “We’re about a third of the way through and we have too many good teams coming up. There’s going to be some juggling of the schedule, and at the end of the day, does it really matter who’s in first place in the middle of January I don’t think it does?
Some might disagree, but McCaffery’s live-in-the-moment approach makes sense as a head coach, especially during a global pandemic.
But McCaffery also understands the significance of being in first place, and what it takes to get there.
“At the same time, they recognize it, they’ve worked for it and they’ve earned it, and that’s great,” McCaffery said of his players. “I don’t want to diminish it, because any time I get the opportunity to praise my guys and compliment them on the hard work and sacrifices that they’ve made to get here, I want to emphasize that.”
McCaffery did not address being in first place with his players immediately after Sunday’s game at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill.
“But it’s not something that I would address to them,” McCaffery said. “I didn’t. I haven’t. Where we are in the standings. Who’s where.
“Just get ready for Indiana.”
The 6-foot-11 Garza was his usual self on Sunday, at least in the first half when he scored all 17 of his points. Garza was on the bench down the stretch because Iowa’s lead was so big that he wasn’t needed.
He could relax and savor the moment.
Garza’s deep and talented supporting cast showed why Iowa is so difficult to beat as five Iowa players scored in double figures in Sunday’s game, which was televised on CBS.
Iowa assisted on 15 of its 19 field goals in the first half and shot nearly 60 percent from the field for the game.
Sunday’s beat-down showed just how connected and unselfish Iowa is playing right now.
Iowa now shares first place in the Big Ten with Michigan, which lost for the first time this season on Saturday at Minnesota.
Iowa completed a season sweep against Northwestern, winning the first game 87-72 on Dec. 29 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa also improved to 3-1 in Big Ten road games after having finished 2-7 in Big Ten road games last season.
The game was competitive for part of the first half, but then Fran McCaffery seemed to light a defensive spark during a timeout, and Iowa closed the first half on a 21-9 scoring run, and then spent the second half building on the lead.
“When we were struggling there, I think we did a good job of locking in defensively and getting stops, and that led to easier offense,” said junior Joe Wieskamp, who scored 16 points in Sunday’s game.
Iowa’s game against Michigan State, which was scheduled for this past Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, was canceled due to COVID-19 health concerns with the Spartans, so the Iowa players were eager to play on Sunday, and it showed.
“It feels great,” said sophomore guard C.J. Fredrick, who finished with 13 points. “Coach was saying , you can’t take any game for granted. We had one cancelled, but it’s on to the next. And this team just has a great mindset about every game and we were really happy about this opportunity to play today.”
And if we’re to believe that no streak, good or bad, lasts forever, then maybe this will be the year that Iowa finally does what Michigan State and Indiana have done 11 and 10 times, respectively, since 1980, and what Purdue has accomplished nine times, which is win a Big Ten regular-season title.
“We’ve saying it all season long, we want to win a Big Ten championship and we’ve put ourselves in a good position right now,” Wieskamp said. “But there’s a lot of season left and a lot of tough games ahead.
“So we’ve just got to keep locking in and focus on the next one at hand.”
Iowa’s next game is against Indiana on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
However, the game after that against Nebraska, which was scheduled for next Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, has been postponed due to COVID-19 health concerns.
Iowa has been in the running for a conference title at this stage of the season before under Fran McCaffery, only to unravel at the end.
But it just feels different with this team, because for one, it’s better than all of Fran McCaffery’s previous 10 teams at Iowa.
Barring injuries, this Iowa team looks poised to make a serious run at a Big Ten regular-season title.
Iowa finished second in the 2005-06 season, but that was 15 years ago, and it was second place.
This drought has lasted far too long.