Two years ago, Iowa basketball appeared to be the real deal in the middle of January.
Two years later, the Hawkeyes get a second chance to write a happy ending to a season filled with promise.
Before addressing Iowa’s authoritative 76-59 win over Michigan State on Thursday night at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, one has to go back two years to appreciate the journey the Hawkeyes have taken.
Two years ago, we were sitting here in the middle of January. The Hawkeyes were No. 10 in both the writers’ and coaches’ polls, steamrolling most of the opponents in their path. A very high NCAA tournament seed and a possible Big Ten regular season championship were legitimate aspirations, both very much within reach.
Then, the house fell down.
Iowa lost three of six, then three straight games, and then a Big Ten Tournament opening-round game to Northwestern. The Hawkeyes were a Final Four contender in the middle of January. By the middle of March, they hadn’t even reached the Big Ten quarterfinals. They were relegated to the First Four — yes, the play-in round in Dayton — and couldn’t even beat Tennessee.
The spectacular crash-and-burn is something college basketball programs don’t always recover from — not if they’re outside the ranks of the sport’s elite.
Consider South Carolina in 1997 and 1998 as just one example. The Gamecocks weren’t an annual power in the SEC — that’s what Kentucky has always been, and what Florida became under Billy Donovan — but they worked their way to a great height, only to lose round-of-64 games in consecutive NCAA tournaments. They never recovered, and are only now showing signs of life, more than 15 years after those flameouts.
Iowa has had its moments over the decades, but this is not a year-in, year-out power — that’s what Michigan State is under Tom Izzo. When coach Fran McCaffery watched his team disintegrate late in the 2014 season, his project could have fallen apart.
Two years later, the House of Fran seems to have a stronger foundation than ever before… but with this firmer foundation comes the need to translate a strong start into an equally strong finish.
Let’s go to LeBron James for a simple summary of Iowa’s thumping of Sparty on Thursday, enabling the Hawkeyes to sweep the season series and gain a crucial tiebreaker in the race for the Big Ten title:
“Not one, not two, not three, not four…”
That’s right, LeBron. Iowa didn’t stop at a smaller number on one second-half trip down the floor. The Hawkeyes got FIVE offensive rebounds on one trip against a Michigan State team which prides itself on being tougher than everyone else.
Michigan State had already been whacked by Iowa a few weeks earlier in Iowa City, but as everyone knows, MSU star Denzel Valentine wasn’t around for that game. This was a return home game in East Lansing, with Valentine back in the lineup. Michigan State vowed to be tougher… but Iowa punched the Spartans in the mouth again. It’s quite the resounding statement, embodied by that five-rebound sequence at a point in time when Michigan State was supposed to be the more desperate team.
What’s also noteworthy about Iowa’s performance is that Jarrod Uthoff — who is making more and more of an impression on NBA scouts — wasn’t even the leading actor in this romp. Peter Jok poured in 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting (3-5 from three-point range), as a balanced Iowa team won the backcourt scoring battle by a lopsided 44-24 margin. Holding MSU’s Bryn Forbes scoreless — another manifestation of Iowa’s energy and effort — enabled that statistic to emerge.
Iowa now has the Big Ten title in its sights, much as it did two years ago at this time. McCaffery knows all too well that February frustration can blot out January joy and lead to March misery. The journey is only just beginning for the Hawkeyes, but they know that if they stay the course and finish with a lofty record, they’ll be able to stay close to home — in Des Moines — for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten title. A Des Moines pod for the first weekend of the Dance.
Iowa has its Hawkeyes on the prize. We’ll see if this team, this time, can see a project through to its natural conclusion.