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IOWA CITY - From the midpoint of the Big Ten season, Iowa fans have asked one another a simple, yet nebulous, question.
Is it better to make a long run in the NIT or play just one NCAA tournament game?
“That's a tough one,” Iowa junior Devyn Marble said. “Being able to experience New York and being able to play in Madison Square Garden and being able to compete for a national championship in its own right, I don't know. I think I can go one way or the other. I can see the pros and cons of both, but I'm just excited to be around that and make the most of this opportunity.”
Iowa (24-12) was one of the final six teams discussed that missed the NCAA tournament, selection chairman Mike Bobinski said. The Hawkeyes, who face Maryland (25-12) in an NIT semifinal Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, since have rattled off three straight wins by double digits in the 32-team NIT. That includes two victories at sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena and a quarterfinal win at Virginia, which had won 19 straight home games.
Big Ten rival Wisconsin (23-12) advanced to the Big Ten Tournament final, finished 12-6 but was upset by Ole Miss in its first NCAA tournament game. Iowa already has played three games since the Badgers' finale, all of which were televised nationally by ESPN's family of networks. The Hawkeyes will play Tuesday and possibly Thursday in New York.
So does that make a long NIT run better than a short NCAA stint?
“But it's the NCAA tournament,” Marble said. “Even though Wisconsin lost the first game, they still had a really good season.
“Everybody is different, especially in this circumstance. I can't really tell you one way or the other. I could probably tell you if I experienced both in the same season, which is impossible.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery won't interpret the question as an either-or situation. He believes Iowa could compete in either tournament.
“I'm going to argue that there's very little difference between the teams that you're playing,” he said. “There just is. So if you make a long run in this tournament, we could easily have made a long run in that tournament. It's really a question of who you match up against. Sometimes you get in your first-round match and you're like, ‘That's the worst team we could have played or the best team.' I've been there.
“But I look at Virginia, they should have been in. They're better than teams that got in. There's no question in my mind. Same thing for Maryland, same thing for us. But it didn't matter.
“To me, I think we had a team capable of making a run no matter which tournament we went to. The fact that we're getting an opportunity to play more with a young team, I think, is a very good thing.”
What's inarguable is the experience the team has received with its NIT participation. McCaffery said the team is backing off on grinding practices so the extra time is a bit overrated. But the preparation for game plans and learning how to execute against good competition is valuable. Iowa freshman center Adam Woodbury posted his best game against Virginia, scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 26 minutes. Now he'll face 7-foot-1 sophomore center Alex Len, whom McCaffery called “a lottery pick.”
“And as you look down the road, the more opportunities we have like that, the better off we're going to be,” McCaffery said.
The NIT's exposure adds value to the experience and helps with recruiting. Wisconsin's game aired on truTV and started on a Thursday morning. Iowa gets a singular time spot on ESPN2 Tuesday night against current ACC (and future Big Ten) member Maryland. If Iowa wins, it will face either Baylor or BYU in prime time Thursday on ESPN.
While the NCAA tournament was the goal, the NIT has its benefits for Iowa.
“(If) we win, we'll have two more opportunities to play on national television when hardly anybody else is playing, and every prospect in the country is going to watch those games,” McCaffery said. “Sure, they're going to watch (NCAA tournament games) Saturday and Monday, but they're going to watch Tuesday and Thursday. There's nothing else on. They're going to watch those games, and what are they saying about the coaching staff? What are they saying about those players? What are the players saying about their coaches? What kind of interest does that program have?
“People had a chance to watch this building with 15,400 twice. Everybody that watches says, “I want to play there. I want to go there and play.” That is an unbelievable atmosphere, and that's what you want.”