This weekend has the potential to be a very, very good one for Iowa sports. The men's basketball team is the higher seed (#7 versus #10) and the Vegas favorite to win their opening round game against Davidson -- a win that would end Iowa's 14-year drought when it comes to NCAA Tournament success. The women's basketball team has an even higher seed (#3), gets to play on their home court for the first two rounds, and is heavily favored to make the Sweet 16 -- one of the few accomplishments that has eluded Lisa Bluder in her 15-year tenure at Iowa. And the Iowa wrestling team is a strong contender to bring home a 24th national championship this weekend. So yeah -- there's a lot of very good things that could happen for Iowa sports this weekend, a lot of monkeys that could be removed from backs, a lot of things that could get us to bust out some Junior Senior and dance the night away.
But all of that potential success is reliant on one thing: seizing the moment and taking advantage of opportunities. And that's something that Iowa sports have struggled with in recent memory. While (rightly) celebrating Iowa's accomplishment of securing a drama-free spot in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Pat noted that the football team's recent disappointments have cast a shadow on the rest of the teams in the athletic department and amped up the frustration we feel about disappointments in other sports. I think that's true -- and unavoidable, to an extent. Football is the 800-lb. gorilla around here. You know it and we know it.
But, unfortunately, non-football sports have not been immune to providing their own disappointments. The men's basketball team has come a long, long way from what it was just five years ago. That's a very good thing. And I agree with Jarryd Cole that we should be appreciative of how far the program has come, how much better it is now than just a few years ago. But expectations are higher now -- and that's a good thing. Expectations should be higher now. Fran & Co. have brought success back to Iowa basketball and they've established that success -- three straight 20+ win seasons certainly qualifies as success, in my book -- and that means bigger and better things. It's OK to be disappointed and frustrated when this team falls short, as it has in the Big Ten Tournament the last two years.
And the frustration we feel is there in large part because we know this team is capable of more -- because we've seen it. Last year's late-season implosion was so painful because that team spent a good chunk of the season looking really, really good. Iowa looked dominant for large stretches of the season. They were ranked in the top-10 at one point! And then it all fell to pieces. All those losses down the stretch -- and that loss in the Big Ten Tournament -- didn't end up costing Iowa a spot in the field-of-68... but it did cost them spots on the seed line and likely threw them into a brutal game against Tennessee in the First Four. Just one or two more wins to end the season and Iowa's likely outside the First Four -- and looking at a winnable game in the NCAA Tournament. And maybe the "never won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001" talking point is dead and buried.
This year's team has also shown us several examples of how good they can be. They beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill! As much as certain aspects of that game were fluky (UNC shot 28%!), there's no ignoring the fact that Iowa made key plays on offense and defense down the stretch in a hostile road environment to get that win. That's impressive. Iowa swept Ohio State this year. They dismantled a very good Maryland team. They won six straight Big Ten games -- the first time any Iowa team has accomplished that since Roy Marble Sr. was flying around Carver in short shorts. That's what makes it so inexplicable -- and so frustrating -- when they lay an egg like the Penn State game last week or the Northwestern or Minnesota games earlier in the season. Iowa has a very winnable game in the NCAA Tournament tomorrow -- Davidson is a very good team, but they defend poorly and the size disparity between Iowa and Davidson could be a huge advantage for Iowa (although maybe not, as HEC has also suggested). Iowa does not need to play lights out or play their best game of the season or hope for a completely off night from their opponent to win this game -- they just need to play well.
The stakes are a little higher for the Iowa women -- while a single win in the NCAA Tournament is going to feel good for the Iowa men, anything less than a spot in the Sweet 16 is going to be a letdown for the ladies. That's because this team is very, very good, as they've shown over the course of the season, and because the situation is set up so well for them. Washington, Miami, and American are all good teams that have had good seasons, but Iowa can (and has) beat teams as good or better than them this season. And Iowa gets to play the games on their home court, cheered on by thousands of their own fans. The deck is stacked in Iowa's favor this year -- they just need to play well and take advantage of the opportunity. Individually, Iowa's failures to make the Sweet 16 under Bluder are all fairly understandable -- they've rarely (if ever) been favored in the Round of 32 game and, in fact, they've drawn some very challenging match-ups over the years (lots of #1 and #2 seeds). It's only when you look at things collectively that it starts to rankle a bit. 15 years and no Sweet 16 appearances? Bluder has done a lot of very, very good things at Iowa and enjoyed a considerable amount of success -- her program has probably been the most consistent one at Iowa over the last 15 years, in fact -- which is what makes it so odd -- and, yes, frustrating -- that her teams have never been able to crack the Sweet 16 code. But this team has talent (lots of it). It has experience (lots of it). It has solid match-ups in the first two rounds and home court advantage. If the Sweet 16 drought doesn't end now... when will it?
Wrestling is near and dear to my heart, which has made their struggles in recent years especially disappointing. This year's team did finally end Iowa's stretch of seasons without a conference championship (no, the dual meet championship does not count)... sort of. It would be hard to imagine a more unsatisfying way to "win" a championship: Iowa tied Ohio State and the key points -- the championship-tying points -- were obtained through a a medical forfeit. Iowa went 0-4 in championship matches, 2-5 in the final session altogether (with one of those "wins" coming via the aforementioned medical forfeit), and with one measly takedown spread across those seven matches. It was an ugly, unimpressive, and frankly dispiriting performance -- because it was far from the first time we've seen something like this out of Iowa wrestling in recent years. We saw it in the National Duals final just a few weeks ago. We saw it in too many of the matches in the Midlands Championships finals a few months ago. And we've seen it in too many other matches, meets, and tournaments over the past few seasons.
Watching Iowa come up short this season has been particularly frustrating because things were seemingly set up very well for Iowa. Penn State was going to take a step back after the departures of Ed Ruth and David Taylor. Meanwhile, Iowa boasted a senior-laden lineup and quality wrestlers from top to bottom; they may not have had the high-end firepower of recent teams that boasted guys like Matt McDonough and Tony Ramos, but they were as well-rounded as any Iowa team in a long time. That won't be the case next year (the middle of Iowa's lineup looks like a big question mark and as frustrating as this senior class has been to watch at times, they're still very good and will be very tough to replace), which is why there was added emphasis on Iowa to take advantage of their opportunity and win now.
And that's really what it comes down to for Iowa in all of these sports: taking advantage of opportunities to succeed. Much as we might hope it was otherwise, Iowa is not Alabama in football. They are not Kentucky in men's basketball, nor are they UConn in women's basketball. We're closer to that ideal in wrestling, yes, but parity has taken hold in that sport, too -- it seems highly unlikely that we'll ever see a run like what Iowa put together under Gable in the past. We dream of a day when Iowa is a powerhouse in any and all sports and we hope for the right coaches to come along at the right moments in history to turn Iowa into powerhouses. That won't be easy at all -- demographics and population trends are not exactly Iowa's friend -- but it's a very worthy goal.
But in the meantime, it's important to recognize what Iowa is -- a program with highs and lows. Iowa isn't going to contend every year -- not even in wrestling. There will be some years when retooling or rebuilding is needed, when the pieces aren't in places for big success. That's OK. But that's why it's so key that Iowa DOES take advantage of those opportunities for success when they do arise.
When Iowa has a football team loaded with talent and experience, as they did in 2010, it's incumbent on them to make the most of that situation and enjoy as much success as possible. Because teams like that will not -- and do not -- come around all the time for Iowa. Likewise, when they have a team with a good amount of talent and experience and a very favorable schedule, as they did in 2014, it's another situation where they need to take advantage.
When Iowa has a senior-laden teams full of experience and talent, as they do in women's basketball and wrestling, it's important for them to maximize their success. These are situations where Iowa is set up to succeed, where several factors are in their favor. That isn't always the case for Iowa and while you can succeed when things aren't in your favor -- and Iowa has at times in the past -- it's not easy.
What happens this weekend won't undo the seasons that Iowa had in women's basketball, men's basketball, and wrestling or erase the success. Iowa has had very good seasons in all three sports and enjoyed levels of success in all of them that have not been seen at Iowa in several years (or decades, in the case of Iowa men's basketball's 6-game Big Ten winning streak). But this weekend presents a lot of very good opportunities for Iowa, opportunities to attain success that we'll really remember and celebrate.
Please, Iowa, take advantage of these opportunities that have been presented to you -- that you have earned. Give us the memories that matter, the ones that linger and get celebrated. Maryland was likely a far better opponent than Davidson - objectively, Iowa's win over the Terps was a better win. But if Iowa beats Davidson in NCAA tourney, that win will be far more memorable when we look back on this season. I still remember who Iowa beat (Creighton) and when it happened (2001) for their last NCAA tournament win. Because it's the tourney. It matters. It's the pinnacle. It's what we care about. The same is true (even moreso) for making the Sweet 16 (as the women can do this year) or winning a national championships (as the wrestlers can do).
This could be a very good weekend for Iowa sports -- the best we've had in a long, long time. But that can only happen if Iowa teams rise to the occasion and take advantage of these opportunities. Recent history suggests that might not happen, but the failures, disappointments, and shortcomings of the past don't ensure doom this time around. This can be a new day for Iowa sports... but only if they seize the opportunity. Let's hope they do.