IOWA CITY — There is proof Iowa has participated in the last five Big Ten men’s basketball tournaments, but not a lot of it.
Last year was the first time in five years in which the Hawkeyes as much as won a game in the event. They beat Illinois on Wednesday of the tourney, the day when the four bottom seeds play in something less than a fever-pitch atmosphere.
Iowa lost the next day, to Michigan, and had failed to make it to Friday’s quarterfinals for a fifth-straight year.
So that’s one thing to note heading into the Hawkeyes’ 8:30 p.m. Big Ten game Thursday at Chicago’s United Center against Illinois (12-20), which beat Northwestern 74-69 in overtime Wednesday night in the opening round of the tourney.
Also noteworthy, however, is that last season’s Hawkeyes were the worst of their last five teams, and their 4-14 Big Ten regular-season record was as bad as any Iowa club since 1964. Yet, they put on a far better show at the league tourney than the previous four Iowa squads, who were 9-9, 12-6, 12-6 and 10-8 in Big Ten play.
Iowa opened play last year in Madison Square Garden with a sparkling 96-87 win over Illinois. The Hawkeyes out-rebounded the Illini, 40-20, shot 56 percent from the field, and made 34 of 41 free throws.
They then played eventual tourney-champion Michigan to overtime before losing, 75-68. It was as hard as the Wolverines got pushed in any of their nine straight postseason victories leading up to their national-championship game loss to Villanova.
So what happened that a 4-14 Big Ten team could be so competitive when three Fran McCaffery-coached Iowa squads that advanced to NCAA tourneys got bounced in the first game of the conference event?
“I thought we played hard, and you would say, well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Yeah,” McCaffery said this week. “But I felt like we were together. I thought our offense clicked better, and oftentimes when that happens, other things are better, whether it be defense or rebounding in particular.
“And we were locked into the game plan, and obviously looking to do the same thing this year, play better, play better than we played last year even.”
Iowa (21-10) brings a four-game losing streak to this game against a team that will have won a contest less than 24 hours earlier. As rotten as the way the Hawkeyes’ 93-91 overtime loss at Nebraska Sunday ended for them and as rotten as the last two weeks have been, is it anything a good performance in Chicago can’t diminish?
“The first thing is when you lose a game like that one, you feel like everything was horrible,” McCaffery said, “and there were certain things that were not good clearly. But there were a lot of good things in that game, and you have to be able to recognize that. We did some things that were better than we had been doing previously. We made shots. We moved the ball.”
If an Iowa team going nowhere postseason-wise last year could respond with two competitive games in New York, why not a Hawkeyes squad that appears certain to be headed to the NCAA tourney no matter happens this week in Chicago?
“This is a resilient group,” McCaffery said. “We’ll be OK.”
“I think we’re all really excited,” Iowa forward Tyler Cook said. “Obviously, this is probably the most fun part of the year for everybody across the country.
“It’s super exciting. I think that kind of energy will serve us well.”