Huge week for Iowa men, but NCAA Tournament will ultimately define its season
Iowa faces back-to-back road games at No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Of course, you’d love to have back-to-back wins.
You would accept, and maybe even be satisfied with a split.
But you fear being 0-2 for the week.
That’s my guess as to how most Hawkeye fans feel with the ninth-ranked Iowa men’s basketball preparing for back-to-back road games at No. 3 Michigan on Thursday, and at No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday.
Iowa has won four games in a row, and in its most recent game, senior center Luka Garza became Iowa’s all-time leading scorer in a 74-68 victory over Penn State this past Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The COVID-19 global pandemic still is a threat, but Iowa is poised to play all 20 of its conference games, and that’s a worthy accomplishment by itself.
The Big Ten regular-season title, which Iowa hasn’t won even a share of since the 1978-79 season, probably is beyond reach with Iowa (17-6, 11-5) trailing Michigan by four games in the loss column.
But this Iowa team will ultimately be judged by how far it advances in the two postseason tournaments, and especially in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa could lose both games this week, but it wouldn’t matter a month from now should Iowa make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
That is taking nothing away from these two much-anticipated road games because they are a big deal and because they matter.
Iowa is trying to secure a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and these two roads games will help to determine where Iowa lands.
However, on the other hand, these two games won’t make or break Iowa’s season.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and three of his players held a zoom conference with the media on Tuesday and the players described this week as a great opportunity.
And that’s exactly what it is; a great opportunity to make a statement and show the college basketball world that Iowa belongs with the elite teams.
“It’s just a great opportunity for us,” said junior Joe Wieskamp. “I think that’s what we get night-in and night-out in the Big Ten. You’re playing a lot of ranked teams. But not too often are you going to play the third and fourth ranked teams in the same week.
“So it’s definitely a great opportunity for us, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Ohio State came from behind to defeat Iowa 89-85 on Feb, 4 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, while this will be Iowa’s first and only game against Michigan in the regular season.
“It’s just a great opportunity for us to be able to show what we’re capable of,” said senior point guard Jordan Bohannon, who is just three assists from breaking Jeff Horner’s school record of 612 assists. “We thought we had Ohio State at home and we let that slip away. So we get another chance at them on Sunday, and then we play Michigan, one of the top teams in the entire country.
“We’re kind fighting with them for a spot that we believe we still deserve a one seed. And I think if we’re able to show the national media and the NCAA Tournament committee what we’re capable of on the road this week that I think from my perspective it’s going to be a lock for us to be a one seed if we win both of these games.”
I’m not ready to go that far because what if Iowa wins both games this week, but then loses to Wisconsin in the regular-season finale, and then loses its first or second game in the Big Ten Tournament? It’s doubtful under that scenario that Iowa would be a No. 1 seed
Iowa could win its final four regular-season games, and win the Big Ten Tournament, but some still probably would consider the season a disappointment if Iowa should fail to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa finished second in the Big Ten in the 2005-06 season, and won the Big Ten Tournament.
But that team also was upset by Northwestern State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and sadly, that stunning defeat overshadows what was accomplished during the regular season, and in the conference tournament.
Iowa could lose both games this week, and lose to Wisconsin, and lose early in the Big Ten Tournament, but it wouldn’t matter nearly as much should Iowa make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Fair or not, that’s just the world we live in where success in the NCAA Tournament carries the most weight.
And by deep run, that would require at least a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1998-99 season. No player on the Iowa roster has won more than one NCAA Tournament game.
I’m sort of traditionalist in how I still value what a team accomplishes during the regular-season. You could make a strong case that winning a conference regular-season title is the hardest thing to do, and that’s why Iowa hasn’t won a title in 42 years.
So yes, this a huge week for the Iowa men’s basketball team, and for Garza, who will be matched against a familiar face in Michigan freshman center Hunter Dickinson.
They both grew up near Washington D.C. and have played against each other numerous times on the AAU circuit, and in practice.
Garza and the 7-1 Dickinson worked out together this past spring and summer during the global pandemic shutdown.
“He definitely knows where my game is,” Garza said. “I think we both know each other’s game pretty well.”
Dickinson has been a major factor in Michigan’s success this season under second-year head coach Juwan Howard. Dickinson leads Michigan with 15 points and nearly eight rebounds per game.
Iowa then will have just days to prepare for the Buckeyes.
“I think these are two opportunities for us to get a lot better,” Garza said. “We’re playing at two of the best teams in the country, and two of the best offense. It’s really going to test our defense.”
These two games won’t define the season, however.
What Iowa accomplishes in the NCAA Tournament will determine that.
Iowa vs. Michigan
When: Thursday, 6 p.m.
Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
All-time-series: Michigan holds a 96-65 edge in the series. The two teams split last season’s two meetings with each team winning on its home floor. The Wolverines hold a 53-24 advantage in games played in Ann Arbor. The teams have split the last four meetings at the Crisler Center, with Michigan winning the last two. Iowa’s 72-54 victory in Ann Arbor in 2015, was Iowa’s largest margin of victory at Michigan in 61 years.