Dochterman: Iowa men’s basketball’s bubble fate shouldn’t overshadow a season salvaged

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Carver-Hawkeye Arena looked like a bespeckled piece of candy corn on Sunday night, as it always does when the Illinois men’s basketball team crosses the Mississippi River and heads west on I-80.

For the No. 12 Illini, whose fans made up around a third of the total crowd, improving their NCAA Tournament seeding was the only external motivation. For Iowa, its postseason fate was at stake. The Hawkeyes entered the game straddling the bubble. A sold-out Senior Night home crowd gave the Hawkeyes an even shot against their more talented rival. Instead, orange-clad visiting fans mocked the Hawkeyes with chants of “N-I-T” at the end of Illinois’ 73-61 victory.

At 18-13 overall, Iowa’s postseason future depends on how it performs as the seventh seed at the Big Ten tournament. Two victories in Minneapolis this week, and the Hawkeyes should earn their eighth NCAA bid under coach Fran McCaffery. A loss on Thursday to No. 10 seed Ohio State, and Iowa should prep Carver-Hawkeye Arena for an NIT game. A win against the Buckeyes followed by a third loss to Illinois in 21 days leaves the Hawkeyes’ postseason hopes up to the selection committee.

“I think we have work to do,” McCaffery said. “We’ve got some really good wins in a very difficult league with good wins out of conference. It’s not something you kind of want to leave to chance. You want to do some more damage this week if we can.”

One game doesn’t tell the story of an entire season, and when this campaign concludes in the next few weeks, I hope fans provide some perspective before chopping it to bits. These Hawkeyes don’t deserve the snarl their predecessors may have. This team doesn’t have the national player of the year like it did three years ago with Luka Garza. It doesn’t have a player capable of scoring a Big Ten tournament record number of points like Keegan Murray. There isn’t a first-rounder like Kris Murray or perhaps even a first-team All-Big Ten performer.

Iowa’s recent seasons have ended in disappointment and extended a streak of 25 consecutive years without a Sweet 16 appearance, and that status is the only measurement for many fans. But this team deserves more praise than derision, no matter whether it misses the NCAA or somehow shocks its skeptical fan base by advancing to the second weekend. I know it’s fashionable to want McCaffery out, but the truth is, this is his best coaching job.

Iowa looked like a cellar dweller back in December after it lost by 19 at Purdue, by 25 at Iowa State and then by 10 at home to Michigan. The Hawkeyes rallied from an 0-3 start to Big Ten play with three straight league victories. A midseason stretch of inconsistency, highlighted by a pair of losses to Maryland and road defeats to Penn State and Indiana, appeared to put them in the postseason boneyard, especially with a daunting schedule to finish. Of the Hawkeyes’ final six games, five were against likely NCAA Tournament squads.

Instead of wilting, Iowa won four of six, and both losses were to Illinois. That stretch included wins at Michigan State and Northwestern, along with an overtime victory against Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes finished at least .500 in Big Ten play for the 11th time in 12 years. Only Tom Izzo’s Spartans have equaled that accomplishment.

Over the McCaffery era, several teams have been mentally drained at this stage of the season, including a few of his best squads. This isn’t one of them. This group has fought for every inch of turf it has acquired this season. It lacks experience and the NBA-ready talent McCaffery has cultivated over the last handful of seasons. It didn’t begin the year with a dominant scorer like Garza, nor did it have a fiery leader like Connor McCaffery. Every step this group has taken has been organic. That comes down to resiliency, development and — dare I say — coaching.

“A ton of teams that go through that, they kind of fizzle out, you never hear from them again, and they don’t storm back the way we did,” said Iowa junior Payton Sandfort, who scored 23 points Sunday against Illinois. “When you have guys that want to be here and want to play as hard as they can and put their body on the line and do it for each other, I think that’s where you kind of see teams climb back out of that hole.

“I’m proud of our guys. We never separated, we always stayed together and always did it for each other.”

The Hawkeyes face one last test of their resolve after a flat performance against Illinois. Iowa had eight days off and promptly missed its first 10 shots and 13 of its first 14. It trailed 22-4 barely eight minutes into the game and by 21 points with 9:30 left in the first half.

But as they’ve done all year, the Hawkeyes rallied. Iowa trimmed its deficit to 10 at halftime and to four points by the mid-second half. But there were too many cold spells and not enough rebounds to stay with the athletically gifted basketball team standing in Iowa’s path. Collecting only three offensive boards on 42 missed shots points to the one area where the Hawkeyes’ effort waned. They took good shots early; they just missed them.

“You lose a game we all wanted to win,” McCaffery said. “The kids fought, the kids prepared, it didn’t go well today. So you don’t want to start throwing everybody under the bus and blaming.

“I thought we competed. It wasn’t our day. We have another opportunity this week.”

To reach the NCAA Tournament, it’s not as easy for Iowa as beating a lower-seeded team. The Buckeyes have been surging since coach Chris Holtmann was fired, winning six of their last eight games, including the last four. After Purdue and Illinois, there’s not much separating the Big Ten’s top 11 teams.

Whether the Hawkeyes earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament or get another game at home in the NIT, one shouldn’t base this season’s success on a pass-fail scale. This isn’t the same as getting bounced in the second round as a No. 2 seed, like Iowa did in 2021, or winning the Big Ten tournament only to fall in a classic 5-12 upset like in 2022. Those defeats deserved a cynical response. This season, no matter how it concludes, does not.

Programs like Iowa are bound to have trying seasons after losing elite players. To suggest otherwise reveals a lack of understanding about college basketball’s structure. Either way, based on how the team has competed after previous bouts of adversity, expect a strong response this week.

“I would say we’ve had our backs against the wall pretty much since early December,” Sandfort said. “We’ve never quit, we’ve never given up and that’s why we’re in the position we are in with a week left. I don’t see why we would change that now.”

(Photo: Julia Hansen / Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA Today)

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