Remember the 2014 Iowa Hawkeyes?
They merit a place in a discussion of the current college basketball season, and more specifically, what transpired on a wild Wednesday night.
Other teams have done what 2014 Iowa did. Consider the 2011 Villanova Wildcats as another example. If you look through the record books, you’ll find yet more teams in the same boat.
What is this boat? Well, for starters, it’s a sinking one.
The 2014 Iowa team started 15-3, and appeared to be a 4 seed at worst. The Hawkeyes’ season had acquired a markedly upward trajectory after two full months, including five conference games and a takedown of then-No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus. (That the Buckeyes also fell from their perch in February helps explain this larger story.) However, if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it many times. The slow procession of the conference season inspires the middle tier of a conference to take its shots at the top dogs. This is partly a product of the fight for the conference title, but it’s even more the product of the realization among those mid-level teams that if they can pick off a signature win, their NCAA tournament odds rise exponentially.
The team which barely loses in the first two months of a college basketball season and sprints to an early lead in its conference becomes a target for so many reasons. Once the armor of belief is dented, or opponents expose a weakness, or a lack of a bench becomes more and more apparent due to the accumulated miles logged by the starters (or all of the above), the season can tumble down the hillside.
It’s a particularly brutal aspect of the sport, and 2014 Iowa felt the sting of this steep decline.
The Hawkeyes, once headed for a protected seed and a first weekend of the Dance geographically close to their campus, instead fell all the way to the First Four in Dayton… and they didn’t even escape to the round of 64. Tennessee defeated Iowa to become the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region… and ride all the way to the Sweet 16, when it lost to Iowa’s Big Ten counterpart, the second-seeded Michigan Wolverines.
Wednesday night, college basketball observers witnessed three teams which might be turning into the 2014 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Texas A&M is one of many teams to occupy a spot in the top five of the polls this season. The Aggies were always going to be viewed with some degree of suspicion due to their presence in the notoriously weak SEC, but when they beat Iowa State in the Big 12-SEC Challenge on January 30, they had seemingly answered some basic questions about their legitimacy.
Well, in a rational world, yes… but nothing about this college basketball season is rational (except for Rutgers being really bad, and Northwestern not making the NCAA tournament, and a few other similar realities near the bottom of the power structure).
Texas A&M fell to Alabama on Wednesday, marking the Aggies’ third straight loss. Alabama is a beneficiary of the Aggies’ largesse, what can also be called “productive cannibalism” in a conference context.
A&M is not going to miss the tournament (unless it loses every remaining game or something close to it), so any defeat of Billy Kennedy’s crew represents a fat poker chip for SEC bubble teams trying to work their way up the ladder and into the big show. LSU gets this very opportunity on Saturday, a game the Tigers pretty much have to win if they want to go Dancing. This is how conferences get fatter NCAA tournament allotments — some teams establish themselves as tournament teams but then go on a losing streak, essentially becoming the biggest talking point on every bubble team’s resume.
The concern for A&M is that if it doesn’t arrest this slide, it will be a double-digit seed in a month. Just a week ago, it was hard to see the Aggies as anything less than a 4, and probably a 3.
The craziness of Wednesday night is that Texas A&M wasn’t the only team to generate this concerning storyline — except for the bubble teams which are scooping up the loot, of course.
In the Big East, Marquette beat a reeling Providence team — yes, the same bunch of Friars who won at Villanova not too long ago and were making national noise. Providence is now 6-6 in the Big East, below Creighton, a team which benefited from its ambush of Xavier. While we’re on this subject of “bubble benefactors” who crash and burn in the middle of the conference season, the Musketeers could very well become another example. They might devolve into another highly-ranked team which makes many “bubble donations” this February.
Also on Wednesday, SMU — unique in that it’s ineligible for the Dance — still began to take another step forward (or backward, as it were) to the “bubble benefactor” circle.
The Mustangs rose to the top eight of the national rankings, but are now becoming a resume-altering prize for the bubble teams in the middle of The American. Temple beat SMU during the huge snowstorm in the Northeast a few weeks ago; that could have been seen as the Mustangs’ lost weekend under difficult circumstances. However, a recent loss to Houston and now a very rare home-court stumble to Tulsa have removed a lot of the luster from the Ponies’ postseason-free campaign. The Temple loss might have seemed like a blip; it is becoming a sign of something worse.
Tulsa, though, won’t complain. Frank Haith’s team — not just by winning, but by doing so on the road — has dramatically boosted its prospects of making a run to the field of 68. The Golden Hurricane — like Alabama — are waking up Thursday with a much more hopeful outlook.
A&M, Providence, SMU — three teams which climbed to a high place, now plummeting in February.
Alabama, Marquette, Tulsa — three examples of bubble teams which are benefiting from the struggling (not-so-) strongmen in their conferences.
We’ve seen this movie before in college basketball, but my, my, my, a lot of theaters are showing the film right now, not just one.
It’s that kind of season.