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INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa spelled its name correctly on the front page of the exam. Now comes the actual answering of the questions.
The No. 5-seed Hawkeyes annihilated 12th-seed Northwestern on Thursday in the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, 112-76. Now comes the test: How far can the Hawkeyes go against Rutgers on Friday and whomever else is ahead should they beat the Scarlet Knights?
Rutgers did what it had to do to get a double-bye in this tourney, tying Iowa and Ohio State for fourth place in the regular season at 12-8 and owning the tiebreaker by virtue. The Scarlet Knights (18-12) are presumed to be in the NCAA tournament field, but certainly could use a win over the 24th-ranked Hawkeyes to cement their postseason situation.
Iowa, meanwhile, has vivid memories of one of its worst games of the season, a 48-46 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 19 in which the Hawkeyes shot and rebounded poorly.
“They really kind of beat us down last time,” said Iowa freshman wing Payton Sandfort. “They’re really physical, a really good defensive team.”
A foul call with two seconds left that most observers found curious let Ron Harper Jr. make two free throws to prevent Iowa from getting a chance to win in overtime.
Are the Hawkeyes seeking payback? It depends if you ask their head coach or their players.
“You show up in this tournament, whoever you play against, you'd better be ready.” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “Anybody you show up to play against can beat you. We feel like anybody we show up to play against, we can beat them. So we're just trying to lock in to a game plan and play well and stay together.
“All that, ‘Boy, I hope we have another shot,’ all that nonsense, you just get on to the next game.”
OK, but …
“We all know Coach McCaffery is a different guy,” Iowa player Jordan Bohannon said after Thursday’s game. “He’s a phenomenal coach, phenomenal human being. But I definitely have been marking this game when we saw them on our side of the bracket.
“We felt like it was a very different game when we played up there. Both teams weren’t scoring a lot, then a controversial foul was called, obviously, to end the game. We feel like we deserved an overtime in that there and weren’t given it.
“That’s OK. We’ve got to earn this win tomorrow and we understand that.”
“It's a team we only played once this year and we all felt like it's a game we should have won at their place,” Iowa forward Keegan Murray said. Murray, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, had 13 points at Rutgers, one of his lowest point totals of the season.
“I feel like for us we wanted this game and we got it now. So it's just putting the pieces together, going over the scout, and trying to get the win.
“I feel like if we play at our pace it will be a good game.”
Rutgers has the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in senior guard Caleb McConnell, the league’s only player who is a finalist for the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Veterans Geo Baker, Paul Mulcahy and Ron Harper Jr. also defend for Steve Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights, and 6-foot-11 center Clifford Omoruyi has blossomed as a shot-blocker and an offensive threat.
“They've got a really good team,” McCaffery said. “That's enough for us. We know what we're facing tomorrow.”
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