Hlas: NCAAs not distant dream for Hawkeyes

First three-game Big Ten win streak in six years for Iowa

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IOWA CITY — Minnesota’s basketball team was like a meteor shower Sunday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a frightening display that threatened to do severe damage.

But it swiftly faded to black once Iowa created an atmosphere of hyperaggressive defense, both the half-court and full-court varieties. So now, these are two teams that are 6-7 in the Big Ten but going in opposite directions.

The Hawkeyes’ 72-51 victory over Minnesota was as freakish as, well, a meteor whizzing across the sky. Iowa fell behind 21-5, then won the rest of the game, 67-30.

Let that soak in for a moment. A 67-30 run against a team that had resided in the Top Ten in this calendar year.

Now let this soak in: Overlooking no one on the Hawkeyes’ remaining schedule and realizing college basketball is fickle, the NCAA tournament is well within 17-9 Iowa’s grasp.

If Las Vegas slapped up spreads today for the Hawkeyes’ remaining five Big Ten contests, they would be favored in four of them. Should Iowa get those four wins, they will probably finish no worse than alone in sixth place in the mighty, mighty Big Ten.

Which means it would play the No. 11 seed in the first round of the Big Ten tourney. After that ... who’s to say it couldn’t topple the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten quarterfinals?

That’s getting way, way ahead of things, since the Hawkeyes’ only real concern right now is winning at Nebraska Thursday night. This is the same Iowa team, after all, that won by just two points at cellar-dwelling Penn State last Thursday.

However, there is a focus to this Iowa squad — aside from the first seven minutes here Sunday — that gives confidence it won’t kick one away that it is supposed to win.

“We’re playing well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We’re playing better. We’ve got a lot of individuals contributing to what we’re doing. This is the time of year when teams tend to tire and feel pressure.”

That’s where it’s not a reach to see the NCAAs in the Iowa’s reach. Many a team hits a wall in the dog days of winter, when the season gets long and aches get achier and pressure mounts. The Hawkeyes seem to have powered through their dark clouds of brutally heartbreaking road losses against good opponents.

Keep in mind Iowa hasn’t had a Big Ten loss to any bums. Keep in mind it played better at Minnesota and Wisconsin than those two teams played here. Keep in mind the last one-third of an 18-game conference season combines with the league tourney to form the impressions that burn brightest come Selection Sunday.

Keep in mind Iowa is playing defense. Through the times the offense went haywire in road defeats, the defense has been consistent over the last month. It was defense that buried the Gophers Sunday.

A team that is ready, willing, able and happy to play defense the way the Hawkeyes played it Sunday in Game 26 is a team that has to be taken seriously in Games 27 through 32, and beyond.

“We were up 16!” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith rued. His team lost by 21. Whatever amount of heart it had was ripped out by Iowa’s team defense. The Hawkeyes had 12 steals, as many as they’ve ever had for McCaffery in a Big Ten game.

“They did not panic,” Smith said. Obviously, he was talking about Iowa, not his own team. “They made the switch defensively and we did not respond.

“It’s about as disappointing a loss as I’ve ever had.”

“We were down 21-5,” Hawkeye Aaron White said, “and the whole time I’m thinking we’ll still come back and win the game. I think everybody on the team thought that.”

They were the only ones in the gym who did. But they may have known something about themselves we didn’t.

Iowa has its first 3-game Big Ten winning streak since 2007. Its last 4-gamer was in 2006. You know, the last season the Hawkeyes went to the NCAA tournament. 

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