No, I'm not talking "must-win" in terms of bubble positioning or tournament aspirations -- the only postseason this team has to look forward to beyond the Big Ten Tournament involves an XBox controller. But is this game "must-win" in terms of avoiding an 0-18 conference season? It might be.
Granted, this seems like an absurd question on the surface -- we're still in January and even after this game Iowa will have eleven conference games remaining, or almost a dozen more chances to notch that elusive first B1G win if they fall apart against Indiana on Sunday. But how many of those games will be legitimately decent chances for a win? Two weeks ago, Iowa sat at 62nd in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, ahead of three other Big Ten teams: Michigan (70), Indiana (73), and Penn State (79). Four (mostly) ugly losses later and they've sunk to 83rd, easily the bottom of the Big Ten. (By comparison, Michigan has climbed to 66th, Indiana has climbed to 64th, and Penn State has zoomed up to 55th. In fact, eight of the Big Ten's eleven teams rank in the top 55 of Pomeroy's ratings, which is part of the reason why it's so hard to find wins on this schedule for Iowa: the Big Ten hasn't been this good in a long, long time.
It was much easier to feel optimistic two weeks ago, when I wrote this in a post that didn't end up getting published (timing reasons, mainly):
In the wake of Tuesday's spirited loss against Ohio State, optimism for the Iowa hoopyballers has probably never been higher since Fran's arrival. But what does all that optimism mean in terms of raw wins and losses? None of us are harboring any illusions of a postseason trip come March, but still: this team is fun to watch, they play hard, and they've managed to take two top teams to the wire.
Oops. On the whole, they're still fun to watch... so long as you mean "fun in comparison to the somnambulent style of the Lickliter teams" and not necessarily "fun" in an objective sense, since there was precious little fun about these past four games. And even "fun in comparison..." breaks down when you look at some of the recent games. Like Purdue, where they had almost as many turnovers (16) as made field goals (19) and were down by 30 (!) at one point. Or like Northwestern, where they were down by 20 minutes into the game and never recovered. Or like Ohio State, where they failed to crack 50 points and had as many turnovers (22) as made field goals. Hell, they got a C- game out of Ohio State (20 turnovers, 6/21 from 3-point range) and still lost by 22 points. And play hard? You'd be hard-pressed to argue that after the ugly efforts against Purdue, jNW, and Ohio State.
Look, no one expected much out of this team, so this isn't some sick redux of the football season, where a team with considerable talent and immense potential floundered its way to a mediocre record -- for one thing, the basketball team isn't good enough to tease us with as much false hope as the football team routinely did. No, they're a bad team that everyone knew would be bad -- but perhaps not this bad.
They're a bad team in general, but they're a dreadful team on the road -- they lost to a Wake Forest team that maight be the worst team in the ACC in years (Pomeroy currently has them ranked 237th). Their lone road win came in an ugly game against a Drake team that's below-average in a down Missouri Valley (210th in Pomeroy's rankings). So it's hard to have much faith in them stealing a road game in the Big Ten, even against fellow sad-sacks like Indiana and Michigan. That leaves the home games and four of their remaining six home games are against currently ranked opponents (Sparty, Wisco, Minny, and Purdue). If you've seen something that indicates this team can beat a ranked team... well, stop lying.
Which leaves us with just two home games -- against Indiana on Sunday and against Michigan on 2/19. Michigan isn't very good, but they are a prolific three-point shooting team and Iowa's three-point defense has been woeful all season (middling performances from beyond the arc by Minnesota and Ohio State in the last two games was more of an indication of missed open shots than it was suddenly improved defense). There's also the small matter that if Iowa doesn't pick off a win before then they'll be bringing an 0-14 mark in Big Ten games into that contest. One line of thought would suggest that could give Iowa an edge -- they'll be desperate and Michigan might be liable to overlook them -- but an equally valid line of thought would suggest that Iowa may have simply packed it in by then. It's impossible to know which line of thought would be true... but I don't particularly want to find out. Then again, Indiana may not be any any easier -- they have an unimpressive 1-5 conference record, but their lone win was a 20-point smashing of Michigan and they have a pair of fiesty, close losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
This post isn't meant to be an indictment of Fran or any kind of dismissal of Iowa's future prospects. That would be wildly premature and quite probably inaccurate -- Fran did a marvelous job of attracting two of Iowa's best players this year (Melsahn Basabe, Bryce Cartwright) at the eleventh hour last year, so he certainly deserves a few years to work his recruiting magic in full. Maybe this year is just a perfect storm of misfortune: a badly overmatched Iowa team playing in the most talented and deepest Big Ten in years and years. But 0-18 would still be an egregious, unsightly failure and a scarlet letter that would cling to the program for a while. No team has gone 0-18 since the Big Ten expanded to an 18-game conference slate; in fact, over the last decade only twice has a team failed to win at least two conference games (Indiana went 1-17 in 08-09, Northwestern went 1-17 in 07-08). We really don't want to make history in that regard. So, please, for the love of whatever deity you hold dear: beat Indiana.