In the immortal words of the greatest world champion of all-time...
Iowa's latest shot at beating "the man" arrives tonight, with a road game against 17th ranked Iowa State.
The Iowa basketball team has a lot of potential. We've been hearing about Iowa's potential for a while now -- ever since the upward trajectory of the program under Fran McCaffery became apparent and definitely after Fran scored Iowa's best recruiting class in a decade. Potential is nice. Potential is fun. It gives you reason to dream about the future and hope for good things to come. But potential's also just another way of saying "shit you haven't done yet."
At some point potential needs to turn into actual accomplishments or it curdles into disappointment and empty hype. So far Iowa has struggled to turn potential into accomplishments. Sure, they've won games -- they've even won games at a steadily improving clip every season under Fran (11 in 2010-11, 18 in 2011-12, 25 in 2012-13), but they haven't won a lot of games against teams that matter, against good opponents. Beating East Gulf Nowheresville State by 35 points is enjoyable in the same way that eating a cookie is enjoyable: it tastes good in the moment, but man cannot live on cookies alone.
Iowa hasn't done very well against good teams so far under Fran.
IOWA VS. TEAMS THAT FINISHED IN THE TOP HALF OF THE BIG TEN
There was a four-way tie between the B1G teams at 4th through 7th in the conference standings after 2010-11, hence seven teams being listed here. Regardless, Iowa didn't do so hot against any of them, notching just two wins against them in 13 tries, blasting Sparty at home in early February and then pulling off what might still be Iowa's signature win of the Fran era in the regular season finale, toppling a #6-ranked Purdue team. Of course, this team was just recovering from the the Lickliter Era, so wins against the best of the best in the Big Ten were hardly to be expected.
Iowa's record against the Big Ten's upper crust improved in year two under Fran, as Iowa went from two wins to four wins against the Big Ten's top teams. That record involved a surprising sweep of Wisconsin (including a stunning win over the Badgers in Madison), a decisive home win over Michigan, and a home triumph over Indiana. That Indiana game (and the second Wisconsin win) were also a part of the run where Matt Gatens took flight near the end of the season and was scoring points at an insane rate.
Iowa enjoyed their most overall success by far under Fran a season ago, but that wasn't reflected in their record against the Big Ten's top teams: Iowa notched just one win (a close home win over Wisconsin) against the teams that finished in the upper division of the Big Ten. The schedule meant that Iowa had had fewer chances to play those teams than they'd had in years past -- Iowa had just seven regular season games against the other five teams that finished in the top half of the league -- but they didn't do much with those opportunities.
But, okay, that's just one way of looking at things. What if we look at Iowa's record against teams ranked in the top 50 by KenPom?
WINS: Alabama (47; neutral), Michigan State (46; H), Purdue (10; H)
LOSSES: Xavier (39; neutral), Illinois (19; H and A), Ohio State (1; H and A), Purdue (10; A), Northwestern (50; H and A), Penn State (43; A), Michigan (26; H and A)
WINS: Wisconsin (7; H and A), Minnesota (47; H and A), Michigan (23; H), Indiana (10; H)
LOSSES: Creighton (35; neutral), Iowa State (24; A), Purdue (28; H and A), Ohio State (2; H), Michigan State (3; A), Indiana (10; A)
WINS: Iowa State (27; H), Wisconsin (13; H), Minnesota (26; H), Illinois (39; H), Virginia (40; A), Maryland (48; neutral)
LOSSES: Wichita State (17; neutral), Indiana (3; H and A), Michigan (4; A), Michigan State (9; H and neutral), Ohio State (7; A), Minnesota (26; A), Wisconsin (13; A), Baylor (29; neutral)
Things look a little better here -- KenPom likes Minnesota, even though the Gophers have failed to turn their lofty rankings into upper-division Big Ten finishes, and Iowa's NIT run last year included some solid wins. But that's still 15 wins in 45 tries -- not great. That sort of record against quality opponents is understandable -- acceptable, even -- when you're a developing team and when you're building for the future.
But Iowa's no longer building for the future. The future is now. This team is what Fran has been building toward since he arrived at Iowa. This team is deep, this team is talented, and this team is experienced. They shouldn't be flustered by any road environments at this point. They shouldn't be confused by any defensive looks. They shouldn't be scared of the moment.
The time for "we'll get 'em next time" is running out. We don't need any more "learning experiences." We need to see results. We need to see wins. If this is the team that we think they are -- or can be -- then they need to start winning games like this one. This game against Iowa State isn't the be-all, end-all by any means -- Iowa will have ample opportunities to beat good teams come Big Ten play this year. A win over Iowa State wouldn't guarantee success in any of them, just as a loss to Iowa State also wouldn't guarantee failure in any of those games.
But if this team is going to live up to its potential, if they're ever going to take their place at the table reserved for really good teams, then they need to start winning games like this. This game is an opportunity for Iowa to prove themselves and establish their bona fides, just like the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game against Villanova. Iowa came up short in that game; let's hope they figure out how to get that win tonight.