It’s been a long offseason. The longest.
When last we saw the Iowa men’s basketball team, it was a March Sunday night and the Hawkeyes lost a knock-down, drag-out regular-season finale at Illinois. The score was 78-76. Iowa trailed by 17 points in the second half only to have its furious rally come one shot short.
It was a fever-pitch contest and atmosphere. Two players on each team were assessed technical fouls. Afterward, star Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu said “It’s just that we don’t like each other. We just don’t. We don’t like each other. They want to kill us; we want to kill them. It’s sweet and simple as that.”
The two teams would have met again five days later in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis had Iowa beaten Minnesota in a play-in game. But that event and the NCAA Tournament were canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and we’ve all waited and wondered to see if college basketball would even have a 2020-21 season.
We will. That’s the plan, anyway. And it starts Wednesday. The Hawkeyes face North Carolina Central at 3 p.m., in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It is an expected victory in a season of many expected victories for the Hawkeyes, ranked fifth in Associated Press’ preseason Top 25.
Reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza and other teammates who accounted for 149 of last year’s 155 games started are back. Senior guard Jordan Bohannon, who missed the last two-thirds of last season because of hip surgery, is back.
This is the highest an Iowa team has been in the first Associated Press men’s basketball poll of a season since it was fourth in 1955-56. Since then, seven Hawkeye squads have been in the preseason top 10. They had wildly different seasons, ranging from one of those teams coming within one victory of a Final Four to another finishing with a losing record.
The 1983-84 Hawkeyes were No. 7 in the preseason and climbed as high as fifth. But they were gone from the rankings before Christmas, and had a 13-15 record.
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Just three years later, Iowa was 10th in the preseason despite having a first-year coach in Tom Davis and not having a player who had experienced a victory in an NCAA tournament. That 1986-87 Hawkeyes club went 30-5 and reached the West Regional final in the NCAAs before a loss to UNLV that still haunts Iowa’s fan base.
Before now, it had been 19 years since Iowa has began a season in the top 10. Steve Alford’s third Hawkeyes team, the 2001-02 edition, had good buzz because it won the Big Ten tournament and defeated Creighton in the NCAA tourney the previous season despite losing leading-scorer Luke Recker to injury in midseason.
Recker came back, but Iowa slipped from its No. 9 preseason ranking to a 19-16 season (5-11 in the Big Ten) that ended with a first-round NIT home loss to LSU.
For a far-better omen, look at how previous AP preseason No. 5 teams have done. The short answer, as you might expect: They won.
The average record of the last 10 preseason No. 5 clubs is 29-7. Their average conference records — and all were from major conferences — is 14-4. Their average final AP ranking is 10th.
The fates of those 5s varied. All won at least one game in the NCAA tournament except last season when it wasn’t held. Three reached Final Fours, while three lost in the second round.
Last year’s preseason No. 5, Louisville, tied for second in the ACC with a 15-5 mark and was 24-7 overall. Virginia was the preseason No. 5 two years ago. It proceeded to go 35-3 and win the national championship.
Would tying for second in the Big Ten at 15-5 and having an overall record resembling 24-7 overall be considered satisfying for Iowa? Not today, perhaps. Would going, say, 33-3, and winning the big tournament? Yeah, that would work.
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For now, the Hawkeyes are just glad to get to Game No. 1 even though it’s on a weekday afternoon and is off-limits to fans.
After eight months and 17 days between games, Hawkeye basketball is back, and with the kind of expectations that haven’t been seen here in a far longer time than this longest offseason.
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