Some realities about Hawkeye basketball

Iowa's game at Illinois Saturday as important as any

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(This post was written before an insane Wednesday night in the Big Ten. Heavy underdog Penn State won at Ohio State and heavier underdog Northwestern triumphed at Wisconsin. It just goes to show ... something.)

Let's look at three realities involving Iowa's men's basketball team. And, no, this isn't airing out the coach or any players. When the Hawkeyes quit, or lose to a Penn State, or cease to be interesting, then the ripping shall commence. They have not entered a pit of doom.

Here's one reality: Against the five teams the Hawkeyes have played that are currently ranked the highest in the major polls and the RPI, they are 0-5. They are Michigan State, Villanova, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa State.

Three of those were on the road. One was on a neutral court, and Iowa lost at home in overtime to Michigan State Tuesday evening.

The one ranked team Iowa has defeated was Ohio State on the road. The Buckeyes were No. 3 in the nation at the time. They are now 23rd.

That remains the Hawkeyes' best win, and it may hold up as such by the end of the regular-season. Even with their recent 4-game losing streak, the Buckeyes remain a formidable outfit that Iowa will have to play well to defeat next Tuesday in Iowa City.

But the numbers don't lie. Against their six best foes -- granted, only one of the six games was played at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa is 1-5. It has a chance to be 3-5 by the end of next week.

Here's another reality: Most of Iowa's most-important regular-season games are still ahead, and one is Saturday night.

For the Hawkeyes to keep league-title hopes alive, they obviously need to protect their home court the rest of the way. That's Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois. If that gets done -- and the first three teams on that list are all NCAA Sweet 16 candidates at the very least -- then Iowa can still be in the championship picture if it takes down some teams on the road.

The remaining road affairs are with Illinois Saturday, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State. If they go 5-0 at home and 3-2 on the road, that's a 13-5 record and you've got a shot for a tie of first, though perhaps not great.

But let's focus on those road games. Write off Michigan State. If you win up there, the script changes no matter how the rest of the season plays out. That's the moment of the regular-season. It would be total gravy.

The big ones, though, are Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. They aren't great teams, but they are competitive and they will be at home. They are places where other first-division teams will lose. Wisconsin has already fallen at Indiana. Ohio State got clipped at Minnesota.

It's games like those that always separate the champs from everyone else. It starts with Illinois, where Iowa has lost 11 straight times and hasn't won since 1999. The Illini are reeling with a 6-game losing streak. They lost at home to Northwestern, and got thrashed at home by Michigan State. And none of it matters as far as Saturday's game goes.

Iowa absolutely must win in Champaign for the first time this millennium, or the second half of the Big Ten season is all about conference-tourney and NCAA tournament seeding. If it does beat the Illini, it needs no worse than a split at Indiana and Minnesota. And, of course, it has got to take care of business at home.

Oh, and it has to treat Penn State like everyone else in the league (but Nebraska) has treated Penn State so far.

Then, of course, it would help if Michigan and Michigan State don't continue at their current paces, given they're 7-0 and 8-1 in the conference, respectively.

Not a lot of margin for error, is there?

But never mind the league title derby. If Iowa is to post a shiny conference record and get a high NCAA seed, it has to add more road notches to its belt.

The third reality is this: March (and April) are a lot more memorable than January and February.

Last season in the Big Ten:

Indiana 14-4

Michigan State 13-5

Ohio State 13-5

Wisconsin 12-6

Michigan 12-6

Here was the championship game of the Big Ten tourney: Ohio State 50, Wisconsin 43.

Here is where those five teams ended NCAA tourney play:

Indiana: Sweet 16

Michigan State: Sweet 16

Ohio State: Elite 8

Wisconsin: Round of 64

Michigan: National-title game

So who had the best season? Michigan, that's who.

A Big Ten regular-season championship is really meaningful when you haven't won one since 1979, like Iowa. But if you're a Michigan fan, you're not trading last year's NCAA tourney run for a Big Ten regular-season championship banner or a Big Ten tournament championship banner.

If you're Indiana, you look at your 2013 championship banner and think about what wasn't more than what was. If you're Ohio State, you're haunted by losing to Wichita State in the game that determined a Final Four team a lot more than you're warmed by those three wins in Chicago for the Big Ten tourney crown.

What am I saying, that only Iowa's postseason performance will matter? Absolutely not. I believe the Big Ten regular-season championship should mean something, and so do league coaches. But my third reality is, well, a reality. Going back to 1999, how many of you could tell me Iowa tied for third in the conference? But most of you remember the Sweet 16 run, I'm guessing.

We're going to revise how we look at this Iowa season at least a few more times this season. Two (or three) wins in the Big Ten tourney put a happy face on things. Winning games in the NCAAs puts a glow over that happy face.

On the other side, Losing a first-round NCAA game to Northwestern State in 2006 trashed Iowa's Big Ten tourney title and 25-win season.

February is about to start for the Hawkeyes. It means a lot. January meant a lot. But March means a whole lot more.

In the meantime, just breathe.


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