Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa men's basketball living in Big Ten's Pit of Misery

Can Hawkeyes escape a dreary Wednesday in New York?

Iowa guard Isaiah Moss dunks the ball after stealing it from Minnesota’s Isaiah Washington (11) during the Hawkeyes’ 94-80 win over the Gophers on Jan. 30 at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa guard Isaiah Moss dunks the ball after stealing it from Minnesota’s Isaiah Washington (11) during the Hawkeyes’ 94-80 win over the Gophers on Jan. 30 at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Imagine the following:

With 10 days left until the Big Ten men’s basketball regular season ends, Illinois is 12-2 and alone atop the standings. Iowa and Minnesota are 12-3.

That’s right. The power center of the conference is in Iowa and two states that border it, and everything is set for an exciting, tense finish. It wouldn’t be enough that the Hawkeyes were in the hunt for their first regular-season league title since 1979. They’d be battling with geographic, historic rivals.

Now let’s look at reality. Wisconsin upset Purdue Thursday night to improve to 5-10 in the Big Ten. That put some space between the Badgers and 3-12 Iowa, Minnesota and Rutgers, and 2-12 Illinois.

Talk about misery loving company. The question is whose season has been more of a bust.

You’ve got to go with Minnesota, since it was picked to finish third in a preseason media poll of 28 people who cover Big Ten ball. Iowa was picked eighth.

Wisconsin got a win to savor Thursday, but its season has been a big-time bust-o, too. It’s winding down its worst season in the last 20, and will almost surely miss out on the NCAA tourney for the first time sine 1998.

But the worst team appears to be the one in last place, Illinois. You look at the Illini’s remaining four games, and you see 2-12 turning into 2-16.

Brad Underwood was 109-27 in his first four years as a college head coach, at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State. But he didn’t bring a box of magic beans with him to Champaign when Illinois hired him last year.

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Then there’s Iowa. The Hawkeyes need wins, starting Saturday against an Indiana team that perhaps has overachieved with an 8-7 league record.

Never mind that stuff about snapping building morale or regaining a little self-esteem. No, what’s at stake for the Hawkeyes is far more important.

Iowa has to win one of its last three regular-season games to avoid claiming its worst Big Ten record, winning percentage-wise, since 1931.

Should 3-12 Iowa lose out, its 3-15 winning percentage of .167 would match that of the 2-10 Hawkeyes of ‘31. That team was harder to watch than the current one. It didn’t score 20 points in any of its last three league games. Of course, there was no 3-point shot or 30-second shot clock back then. Or players who weren’t white.

The Big Ten had an 18-game league schedule from 1975 to 1997, cut it to 16 games from 1998-2007, then returned to 18 in 2008. In all those years, Iowa never won fewer than four games. It went 4-14 in 1990, 2010 and 2011.

Also, the Hawkeyes have never finished worse than 10th in a Big Ten season. They currently are tied for 11th.

But I come bearing optimism in this season of 10 double-digit defeats. I see Iowa with a decent chance of winning not just one of its last three games, but two and maybe all three. Seriously.

In fact, as lousy as things have gone so far, the Hawkeyes can still star in “Escape from Wednesday in New York.”

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The Big Ten tournament, in New York this year for reasons beyond our control, has an opening day that is the college basketball version of purgatory. There will be two games in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Feb. 28. The No. 12 seed will play the No. 13 seed, and the No. 11 will play the No. 14.

Can you imagine the indifference in midtown Manhattan for that twinbill? Or anywhere else, for that matter.

The teams that start the tourney on Wednesday have to win five games in five days to become the league champion and advance to the NCAA tourney. Which is a little unlikely, given none will have more than five wins in 18 conference games.

Never mind that. Iowa can beat Indiana at home Saturday, can win at woeful Minnesota next Wednesday, and can close with a home victory over Northwestern the following Sunday.

If the Hawkeyes sweep those three and Wisconsin drops two of its final three games, they’ll be tied at 6-12 in 10th place. Iowa would have the tiebreaker since it beat the Badgers in Iowa City in their only meeting.

It’s not exactly March Madness. But right now it looks like the best you can get.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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