Hlas: Hawkeyes are big upset from Big Dance

Iowa probably needs to topple a giant in Big Ten quarterfinals

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IOWA CITY — Saturday afternoon, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi moved Iowa into his “Next Four Out” of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

That isn’t as flattering as being in Joe’s “First Four Out,” and it definitely isn’t as good as being in his “Last Four In.” I know, I know. I may as well have typed these first two paragraphs in Mandarin.

You put your last four in, you put your first four out, you put your right hand in, and you shake it all about. But for the Hawkeyes to have cause to do the Hokey Pokey this week, they need to give a very good account of themselves at the Big Ten tournament, which begins Thursday in Chicago.

My uneducated guess is that to get from the Big Tens to the NCAAs, Iowa must handle woebegone Northwestern Thursday night at the United Center, then spring a quarterfinal upset Friday night over the No. 3 seed, a team to be determined today that is probably ranked in the Top Ten.

Just winning once in Chitown is unlikely to cut it, no matter how many people cite finishing alone at sixth place in the mighty Big Ten, a 20-win season, and some razor-thin road losses.

“I think we deserve tremendous consideration,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team belted Nebraska, 74-60, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I definitely feel we’re one of the best 68 teams.”

That’s true, of course. But it isn’t relevant to Selection Sunday. Example: Florida-Gulf Coast claimed an NCAA berth Saturday. It isn’t one of the nation’s best 68 clubs.

A 9-9 Big Ten mark accompanied by a 20-11 overall record would usually be good enough to put you in the big tournament. But Iowa’s nonconference schedule will be underlined with a fluorescent Magic Marker. Five of the Hawkeyes’ victims were 303rd or lower in the RPI standings as of Saturday morning, and another four were no better than 180th.

All the formulas and variables could be reduced to gobble-wobble if the Hawkeyes are still playing Saturday and have ruined CBS’ hopes for an Indiana-Michigan-Michigan State-Ohio State semifinals. Asked what his team is capable of this week, McCaffery said “winning the Big Ten tournament.”

Sure, why not? Four wins in four days in what is heralded as the nation’s toughest conference? Why wouldn’t the No. 6-seed do that?

Except there is precedent. The year was 2001. The venue was the United Center. The team was Iowa. Its seed was sixth.

It was a crazy dream that year, too.

“Any time you win a tournament championship, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some teams that have done that, it never seems to go exactly as everybody thinks it’s going to go,” McCaffery said.

“You’ve got to have some guys step up. It might be one guy has one great game and six other people are really consistent. You don’t turn it over, you rebound the ball, we make some threes. All those things together, and we have a team that’s capable of doing it.”

If there’s reason for optimism the Hawkeyes will look NCAA-worthy in Chicago, it comes from taking care of business in the just-concluded 2-game homestand against Illinois and Nebraska. In Games 30 and 31, all sorts of Hawkeyes played with energy and purpose.

Freshman center Adam Woodbury notched his Big Ten-high in points Saturday with 12, and frosh point guard Anthony Clemmons scored 11 for his top output in the last 17 games. The kids aren’t wilting.

Iowa’s starting front line of Woodbury, Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe combined to go 16-of-20 from the field against the Cornhuskers. The team seems to be getting tougher.

Depth, a critical element for most teams that aim to go deep into a league tourney, isn’t an Iowa weakness.

Saturday was Iowa’s scheduled home-finale. For there not to be an NIT game here in nine or 10 days, though, the Hawkeyes better earn what would be their biggest and best win of the season Friday night.

At least there is a chance, which is far more than you would have said after Iowa’s game at Nebraska just two weekends ago. 

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