CHICAGO — Two days at the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, two starkly different days at the United Center for Iowa’s team.
The Hawkeyes beat Illinois by 21 points Thursday night. Illinois went 12-21 this season.
The Hawkeyes lost to Michigan by 21 points Friday night. Michigan improved to 27-5 with that win.
Beating Illinois and playing the precise way it did in doing so was a nice reprieve for Iowa after closing its regular season with four losses. The Michigan game, however, was a fourth defeat by at least 14 points and third by at least 20 in its last six outings.
Luka Garza had one piece of positive postgame Friday before he got into comments that were a little more somber. It was:
“Last year when we lost to Michigan (at the Big Ten tournament), that was the end of our season. We were going home and getting ready to go on spring break. That’s not the case this year.”
That’s right, and it’s meaningful. The Hawkeyes are 22-11 and about to do something 68 teams will take great joy in Sunday while everyone else in Division I ball stares from the outside in jealousy.
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“To be able to sit there on Sunday and know our name's going to come up (during the NCAA tournament selection show) is a great feeling,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I’m very proud of that group.”
With an NCAA berth comes the near-certain prospect of having a coin-flip first game and an opponent as good and perhaps even better than Michigan waiting in the second round should the Hawkeyes survive their opener.
Iowa seems to be a consensus pick for either a No. 8 or 9 seed in the NCAAs. Since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, the 8s and 9s are 68-68 against each other. No. 8-seeds are 13-55 in second-round games. No. 9-seeds are 7-61.
Iowa was a No. 7 in 2015 and 2016. It beat the No. 10 in the first round both times, but lost to No. 2s Gonzaga in 2015 and Villanova in 2016. The score was the same both games, 87-68. Both were over at halftime.
OK, here’s a stat that’s a little more uplifting from the Hawkeyes’ standpoint: They’re 19-5 when playing a team for the first time this season, and they’ll be strangers to their first NCAA opponent.
Just what would constitute a successful NCAA appearance is in the eye of the beholder. Would it be winning the first game and giving a No. 1-seed a great fight in the second round? Probably.
Would it be winning the first game and then losing by 87-68 to a Duke or Kentucky? Maybe, maybe not.
Would it be losing by any manner in the first round? No way.
Back to Garza. He talked a lot after Friday’s loss. It seemed therapeutic for him. The way the team went flat against Michigan clearly bothered everyone on the club after the game, and clearly no one more than him.
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“The 3s (Iowa was 1 of 16 in 3-pointers) never got going,” Garza said. “That’s not even an excuse. A lack of execution is disappointing. We’re all disappointed in ourselves and as a group.
“I think this game kind of serves as a motivation for the week ahead going into the tournament. We’re going to have to practice really hard, we’re going to reflect on it, and we have to use it as a lesson.
“That’s what you do with all your losses, but ... a tournament setting is a little different. You have a great night last night in terms of executing and kind of the opposite way tonight. We have to be able to change that, we have to be able to fix that.”
Friday was Iowa’s fourth game away from home in eight days, and it caught Michigan at a high level. These Wolverines weren’t the ones that lost 74-59 in Iowa City on Feb. 1. These were the normal Wolverines, a team with a lot of returnees from last year’s national runner-up.
“That team has a chance to go a long way,” McCaffery said. “We’ve beaten them once. I think that says a lot about our ability to potentially go a long way.”
In reality? If Iowa still is alive in the NCAAs a week from Monday, it will be coming off its greatest victory of the 21st century.
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