NCAA Tournament misery continues for Iowa men’s basketball team
Iowa loses to Auburn 83-75 in first round
By Pat Harty
The streak, the annoying Sweet 16 streak, will live on for at least another year.
The Iowa men’s basketball team suffered yet another early exit from the NCAA Tournament, losing to the Bruce Pearl-led Auburn Tigers 83-75 in an NCAA Tournament first-round game on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama.
Iowa also lost in the first-round last season as a five seed to 12-seed Richmond, and lost in the second round as a two-seed against seven-seed Oregon in 2021.
Thursday’s game was on the verge of becoming a rout when Iowa trailed 58-41 in the second half.
But as so often has been the case this season, Iowa didn’t wilt.
In just a matter of minutes, No. 8 seed Iowa trimmed the 17-point deficit to four and gave itself a chance to win.
But nine-seed Auburn, with Pearl leading the way as head coach, withstood the rally and survived and advanced.
Iowa closed the season with a 19-14 record and March Madness continues to be March Sadness for Hawkeye fans.
This game marked the first time that Iowa and Auburn have faced each other, and there were some intriguing storylines, most notably Pearl being a former Iowa assistant coach under Tom Davis from 1986-92, and Iowa assistant coach and former Hawkeye All-Big Ten guard Matt Gatens a former graduate assistant under Pearl at Auburn.
But the biggest takeaway from this game is that the NCAA Tournament continues to be where the Iowa men’s basketball team just can’t figure a way to make a run.
The last time Iowa made the Sweet 16 in 1999, it took the players rallying behind lame-duck head coach Tom Davis, and riding a wave of emotion, and just refusing to lose.
The 1998-99 Hawkeyes made it through two rounds before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Sweet 16 in Denver.,
There was no reason to think that making it back to the Sweet 16 would suddenly become harder than scaling Mount Everest backwards.
But almost a quarter century without having been back to the Sweet 16, which is where Iowa stands right now, you start to wonder.
Some even go as far as to say that Iowa is cursed.
And while that seems a little extreme, the Sweet 16 drought will continue to hang over the program like a dark cloud.
Fran McCaffery doesn’t like talking about it. And why would he?
He has made the Iowa progran highly competitive in the Big Ten, and making the NCAA Tournament is now the rule rather than exception.
Iowa won the Big Ten Tournament last season, and 26 games overall, and has made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and four in the last five seasons.
It would’ve been a program record five in a row if not for the Covid-19 global pandemic in 2020.
So, there is a lot to like about the Iowa men’s basketball program right now under Fran McCaffery, if you can just look beyond the NCAA Tournament woes.
It would have been easy to use the fact that Auburn was playing close to home as an excuse, but sixth-year senior guard Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, refused to do so when asked about that in the post-game press conference.
“Playing in the Big Ten, we’re used to playing on the road, playing in hostile environments,,” Connor McCaffery said. “So, I think, for us — I mean, obviously, like if we had our choice, we would have preferred to be a little bit more neutral. But that’s not why we lost at all.
“We’re used to that. And that’s something — we won at Rutgers. We won at IU. And those places are 100 times louder than it was in here today. So I think it’s just part of the game.”
Junior forward Kris Murray, in what was likley his last game as a Hawkeye struggled for much of the game on offense. But the Cedar Rapids native, and third-team Associated Press All-American, still finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and two steals.
He also helped to ignite the second-half comeback by making two threes when Iowa was in danger of being crushed.
Sophomore Payton Sandfort came off the bench to score 21 points for Iowa, and he also had six rebounds and three assists.
Sandfort also refused to use Auburn playing close to home as an excuse for why Iowa lost.
“It is what it is,” Sandfort said. “You play to get to the tournament. Control what you can and play the game as you can. Unfortunately, we didn’t play up to our capabilities. That’s what happened.”
Iowa didn’t quit when it could’ve easily done so, and that will be a part of this team’s legacy.
It treated fans to some exhilarating wins, including the incredible 112-106 victory over Michigan State in overtime in late February at Carver-Hawkeye Arena when Iowa erased an 11-point deficit with less than a minute in regulation.
But this team also struggled on defense and frustrated fans by losing to Eastern Illinois 92-83 in December, and by losing to a 15-loss Nebraska on Senior Day.
Kris Murray followed in his twin brother, Keegan Murray’s footsteps by ascending to All-America status, but also by losing in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament.
Senior forward Filip Rebraca finished with 14 points and seven rebounds to cap a season in which he was Iowa’s most consistent player.
Kris Murray is the best player on the team, and has the most NBA potential, but Rebraca was the most steady and consistent player on the team.
He will be missed, as will Kris Murray as he is expected to bypass his final season to enter the 2023 NBA draft.
Iowa only made 7-of-27 shots from 3-point range, while Auburn made 8-of-22 attempts from behind the arc.
The fact that Auburn outscored Iowa 24-21 from 3-point range helps to explain why Iowa lost perhaps more than anything else.
Strange and destructive things seem to happen to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament, and this Auburn team suddenly getting hot from 3-point range is yet another example.
But Auburn also was wide open on many of its 3-point shots as defense continues to be a problem under Fran McCaffery.
His teams can score with the best of them, but so often, especially in key moments, and on big stages, his teams struggle to defend, and it proves costly, as was the case in this loss.
Iowa missed 11 straight shots during a stretch in the first half, but still only trailed 10-8 after Rebraca made a jump hook shot with about 13 minutes left before halftime.
Iowa missed all nine of its shots from 3-point range in the first half, and Kris Murray missed six of his seven shots in the first half, and yet, the deficit was only five points (31-26) at halftime mostly because Auburn shot just 38.2 percent from the field in the first half, and missed eight of its nine 3-point attempts.
The first half was brutal for both teams on offense, especially the 3-point shooting.
The 26 points was Iowa’s lowest total in the first half this season, and it marked the first time all season that Iowa failed to make 3-point shot in a half.
Iowa relies more on 3-point shooting that Auburn does, and Iowa is also capable of getting hot at any point in a game, and that was reason for optimism heading into the second half.
Iowa had performed horribly on offense in the first half, but Auburn just wasn’t able to take advantage of that because it also struggled on offense, as it sometimes does.
Auburn is athletic and plays extremely hard under Pearl, but it struggles to make perimeter shots.
Rebraca was pretty much the lone bright spot for Iowa on offense in the first half as he scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field.
Kris Murray helped on the boards in the first half with five rebounds, and he also had one steal.
But his inability to score was a big reason why Iowa trailed.
Connor McCaffery finally ended the 3-point drought by making a three early in the second half that trimmed the deficit to 34-29 less than two minutes into the half.
Murray then found his shooting touch as he made back-to-back threes in the second half, cutting a 14-point deficit to eight (64-56) with 7:03 left to play.
Iowa was within striking distance with plenty of time remaining.
But it wasn’t meant to be as Iowa’s Sweet 16 drought lives on.