Iowa basketball is cursed. It’s been that way for more than 20 years. That’s not something totally new in sports. Plenty of professional franchises have been cursed. The Cubs suffered from the curse of the billy goat for 71 years. The Red Sox suffered the curse of the Bambino for 86 years. The Iowa Hawkeyes have been suffering from the curse of Dr. Tom for 21 years.
It all started, of course, when Hawkeye fans ran Dr. Tom Davis our of town when they were fed up with simply making the NCAA Tournament every season. Iowa has a rich and storied history that includes 26 Tournament appearances and 3 Final Fours. But in the late ‘90s, it had been a decade since the Hawkeyes had made it out of the Round of 32. After 4 trips beyond the second round in the decade from 1979-1988, that just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
And so it was that disgruntled fans, demanding more success than they were seeing, pressured the AD into making a move. Davis’s contract was not renewed and in a bit of foreshadowing, the Hawkeyes naturally made the Sweet Sixteen in Dr. Tom’s lame duck season. They haven’t been back since. That’s how you find yourself cursed.
Iowa has certainly had its chances and Hawkeye fans have gotten their hopes up plenty. After a transition year for REDACTED, the Hawkeyes were right back in the 2001 NCAA Tournament and cruising past Creighton in the first round. Despite a tough matchup against Kentucky in the second round, it looked like the wonder boy coach was going to have Iowa back in the Sweet Sixteen on the regular.
Of course, he would not. After that win over Creighton in ‘01, the Hawkeyes wouldn’t win an NCAA Tournament game for another 14 years. This despite entering the ‘01-02 season ranked inside the top ten and climbing as high as seventh nationally. Iowa went on to finish just 19-16. It wasn’t until three years later in ‘04-05 that Iowa would even return to the Big Dance. But after climbing as high as 14th nationally, the Hawkeyes were bounced in the first round of the 2005 Tournament.
But it was that ‘05-06 team that had every Iowa fan feeling sure of a deep run. The Hawkeyes has climbed as high as #12 nationally and rattled off four wins in four days to win the Big Ten Conference Tournament. They entered the NCAA Tournament as a 3 seed, the highest since the 2nd seeded 1987 team made the Elite Eight. Alas, the only two words that need spoken about the 2006 tourney will give Iowa fans nightmares: Northwestern State.
After just one more season, the Hawkeyes would again be looking for a new coach. After enduring the Pierre Pierce incident and flaming out with the smooth talking, big time personality that was REDACTED, Iowa went for another young coach from the opposite end of the personality spectrum. They got Todd Lickliter, fresh off his second Sweet Sixteen appearance in six seasons at Butler and an NABC National Coach oF the Year season.
Despite a short head coaching resume, Lickliter’s accomplishments at Butler we’re many. His first two seasons for the Bulldogs set school records for wins. His first two years as a head coach totaled 53 wins, good enough for third most by any Division I coach ever. He won three Horizon League titles in six seasons and got the Bulldogs into the AP top-25 for the first time in more than 50 years - something Thad Matt has been unable to accomplish. And of course, he had those two Sweet Sixteen appearances.
For Iowa, this looked like a slam dunk. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. During his three seasons at Iowa, Lickliter amassed more losses than any other three year stretch in Iowa basketball history. He finished with a 38-58 record, giving him a .359 winning percentage with the Hawkeyes. That’s also the worst of any coach in program history. Worse yet, Lickliter’s approach to recruiting was to not to, meaning whoever would come in to clean up the mess was going to be starting with a completely bare cupboard.
Enter Fran McCaffery, the first coaching hire at Iowa since George Raveling to have never been to the Sweet Sixteen at a prior stop. What Fran lacked in Sweet Sixteens, though, he made up for in rebuilds. That’s exactly what he did at Iowa. In his fourth year with the Hawkeyes, he became the 11th head coach in NCAA history to take his 4th team to the NCAA Tournament. And just like that, hope was back for a return to the Sweet Sixteen.
But six seasons later, Iowa fans are still left yearning. The Hawkeyes have gotten everyone’s hopes up plenty. Iowa has been ranked five of the last seven years and have been inside the top ten twice. But they haven’t managed better than a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament under McCaffery.
That was about to change this season and at least some portion of the fanbase again had its hopes up. This year’s Iowa team had all the makings of a team to make a run in the Tournament. The Hawkeyes has the best player in the country in Luka Garza. That’s a great piece to build around. But around Garza they also had the best three point shooter (by percentage) in the best conference in America with CJ Fredrick. They had a talented wing who made third-team All-Big Ten in Joe Wieskamp. They had the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio and a coach on the floor in Connor McCaffery. They had a dynamic guard who could get to the rim on anyone with Joe Toussaint and a number of glue guys who could knock down big shots in critical moments, including Ryan Kriener and Bakari Evelyn. They had a junkyard dog in Cordell Pemsl. This team had the pieces.
But this team was not destined for the Sweet Sixteen. Not only would they not make it, they wouldn’t even have a chance. They wouldn’t have a chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament or the Big Ten Tournament. They wouldn’t have a chance to add to Luka Garza’s record-breaking season. They wouldn’t have a chance at any postseason play.
So here we find ourselves, in a world without sports and nothing but coronavirus statistics and the previews and prognostications for sports that may one day be played again. The Hawkeyes are once again building up fan optimism. We caught a glimpse of all-world shooter Jordan Bohannon back running this weekend. We’ve seen myriad videos of Luka Garza training like crazy. And we’ve seen way too early top 25s come out with Iowa ranked inside the top ten. If Garza indeed returns for a senior year and Bohannon is any semblance of his former self, Iowa will only need minimal contributions from incoming freshmen like Tony Perkins or Ahron Ulis to live up to those top 10 expectations.
Is this the year, then, where Iowa finally makes it back to the Sweet Sixteen? Is this the year we’ve been waiting for? Or is this another year where something, anything, goes wrong and we again endure the curse? Only time will tell.