Saturday’s loss to Illinois will fade if Iowa makes Sweet 16
Iowa will be judged by what it does in NCAA Tournament
By Pat Harty
As much as losing to Illinois hurts right now, it’ll all be forgotten if Iowa advances to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 next week.
That’s all it’ll take to move on from Saturday’s 82-71 loss in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, because fair or not, what Iowa does in the NCAA Tournament will be its ultimate judge. It’s asking a lot to survive the first week of the NCAA Tournament, but this veteran Iowa team is built to achieve a lot, or so it would seem.
Of course, it would’ve been a thrill to have won the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2006. But it also would’ve meant little should Iowa fail to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, with a run being at least a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.
Illinois was just too good for Iowa on Saturday, too good on both ends of the floor.
“I wouldn’t call it disappointment,” said Iowa junior guard Connor McCaffery. “I think we fought hard. We’ve got to be proud of what we’ve done this season, and I think we all are.
“Some things didn’t go our way. Obviously, we want to be playing in the championship. I think this coming week we’ll look back, we’ll get healthy. I think that’s the main thing is get healthy.”
The hope now is that Garza and his cohorts will use this as motivation, and as a reminder that there still is plenty of room for improvement, even at this stage of the season, and for a team ranked fifth nationally.
One of the biggest concerns with Iowa right now is 3-point shooting, as hard as that is to believe since Iowa has so many established perimeter shooters.
Iowa combined to make just 10-of-44 3-point field-goal attempts in two Big Ten Tournament games, including 8-of-24 in Saturday’s loss to Illinois.
And though it could just be a temporary struggle, the timing, obviously, is a concern.
Iowa has performed much better on defense down the stretch, but Illinois still scored 82 points in Saturday’s game.
So again, there is room for improvement.
And there will be pressure to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
That pressure has been festering under the surface throughout this strange and surreal season that’s being played during a global pandemic.
Iowa already has won 20 games and finished third in the Big Ten regular-season standings at 14-6. And while that’s a worthy accomplishment, it’s not the same as making a run in the NCAA Tournament, even thought it might be more difficult.
This season will ultimately be defined by what Iowa does, or doesn’t do, in the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa fell short in its attempt to win the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 1979, and now the Big Ten Tournament title is no longer within reach.
But the biggest goal is still out there, and Iowa is built to make a run in the NCAA Tournament with a dominating presence in the post, and with multiple 3-point shooters and veteran guards.
Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery never gets too high after big wins or too low after tough losses. He just moves on to the next challenge, and that’s now the NCAA Tournament where Iowa still is likely to be a No. 2 seed.
The players and coaches will stay in Indianapolis for as long as Iowa stays alive in the NCAA Tournament, which is being held exclusively in Indianapolis. So that should make it easier for the players and coaches to focus on just basketball, and to block out the noise.
As great as Garza has been, Iowa has only won one NCAA Tournament game with him on the roster.
And it’s the same with Bohannon, who’s a fifth-year senior.
Fran McCaffery also hasn’t led Iowa beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament, so how this season ends, which McCaffery’s 11th season at Iowa, will impact his legacy.
This Iowa team still has a lot to prove, and a lot to achieve in the postseason.
It would’ve been the same, even with a victory over Illinois on Saturday.