In a vacuum, 20 wins and a trip to the NCAA Tournament sounds like a result that Iowa fans would have happily accepted if it had been offer at the beginning of the season. Maybe not entirely -- after all, 20 wins in the regular season last year wasn't quite enough to get Iowa into the NCAA Tournament, but if it was the right set of 20 wins and it got Iowa into the NCAA Tournament, well, it probably would have looked like a reasonably good deal back in November. Beggars can't be too choosy when you're riding an 8-year NCAA Tournament drought, after all.
As always, though, the devil is in the details. "20 wins and a trip to the NCAA Tournament" loses some of its luster when 18 of those wins come by Valentine's Day and Iowa sputters to a 1-6 finish to end the season, including back-to-back embarrassing losses to Illinois and Northwestern. (It's all fun and games to marvel at the "BLOOD AND SPIDERS!" that comprise the Big Ten until it's your blood covering the room and the spiders won't stop biting you in the face.) It doesn't factor in being a fixture in the Top 25 for almost three months, rising as high as 10th in the nation, and then tumbling down to a No. 11 seed. And "a trip to the NCAA Tournament" being comprised of a date in Dayton for the
play-in game "first round game" was certainly not what was envisioned in that hypothetical offer.
So what do we make of this Iowa team? They've met -- by the slimmest of margins -- the minimum expectations that were set for this team. They've done something that no Iowa team before them had managed to do in the past 8 years -- make the NCAA Tournament. Well, sort of. Iowa's "first round" status only muddies their perception even more; according to the NCAA and the official record books, Iowa is in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. To the majority of the college basketball-viewing public, though, they're not really in the tourney; that audience continues to view the Dayton double-headers on Tuesday and Wednesday as a weird limbo experience for the NCAA Tournament, an event that does not truly begin (for them) until Thursday and Friday, when there is wall-to-wall basketball from noon 'til midnight (more or less). Maybe in five, or ten, or twenty years, when the Dayton games have become de rigueur for the NCAA Tournament, we'll stop thinking of the teams in them as "lesser" teams or as teams not really in the NCAA Tournament. Or maybe we'll always think it's weird that, according to the NCAA, 60 teams get byes in the "first round" of the NCAA Tournament.
There's no doubt that ending the season the way Iowa did -- losing six of seven, playing their worst games of the year against Illinois and Northwestern -- played a massive role in the widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with Iowa basketball right now. Had those losses been spread throughout the year, there still would have been disappointment -- 12 losses is a lot of losing to endure, after all -- but the overall effect probably would have been diminished. If you can answer a loss with a win, well, at least the bleeding's stopped (momentarily). But if you answer a loss with another loss and then answer that loss with an even more painful loss... well, that's when negative effects get magnified. And when you precede the pain and the losing with a lot of really good play and a lot of wins and dizzingly high rankings in various polls and statistical breakdowns... well, then you've found a way to make the hurt even worse.
Of course, the way Iowa lost those games mattered, too. It's one thing to lose close games to the likes of Iowa State and Michigan State because of a few missed shots (or free throws) late; it's another thing to get torched by two of the country's worst offenses and watch games completely unravel in the second half. And while losing is never fun, it's one thing to play (mostly) very well and come up short (as Iowa did in several games early this season); it's a far different thing to play (mostly) very poorly and wind up on the losing side of things (as Iowa did in their most recent losses). Surprise! It's no fun to watch a team that struggles to score points and struggles to stop anyone else from scoring points.
But where does that leave us? I never envisioned that a trip to the NCAA Tournament could be so bittersweet or so full of conflicting emotions. But I never quite envisioned an Iowa team that would look so promising in the early (and even middle) days of the season, either. Those early wins (and even the almost-wins) raised hopes and expectations for Iowa this year -- far too high, in hindsight. It seems true that Iowa was never quite as good as they seemed in those salad days -- just as it seems true that Iowa isn't really as bad as they've looked in those most recent calamities.
The answer to this question is probably "TBD." How we view Iowa -- and this season as a whole -- depends in large part on what Iowa does this week. If they manage to halt their disastrous late-season skid, beat Tennessee on Wednesday night, and then beat UMass to make it to the Round of 32? It's hard not to think that a lot of Iowa fans would be pretty satisfied with that result, regardless of the outcome of that Round of 32 game. Recording Iowa's first win in the NCAA Tournament since 2001 (first two wins, technically) would be a very solid accomplishment for this team. Granted, we had visions of "Sweet 16s" and "Elite 8s" and (maybe) "Final 4s" dancing in our heads earlier this season, so just making the Round of 32 wouldn't be a knockout season for Iowa. But we know more about this team than we did in January and re-adjusting our expectations as a result seems like a fair decision.
On the other hand, if Iowa plays against Tennessee the same way they played against Illinois and Northwestern (or Indiana or Minnesota or...) and this season limps to an ugly conclusion on Wednesday night, it will be impossible not to be disappointed and frustrated with this season, even if it did ultimately meet our minimum expectations. But what about you? Where do your feelings lie in this debate?