Earlier this week,
an NCAA Champion was crowned we were supposed to be crowning an NCAA Tournament champion. We were supposed to be spending this week enjoying one of the great weeks in sports. There was to be MLB baseball and NBA basketball on TV and college basketball was going to have its culmination. Instead, there’s nothing on TV and college hoops had its sad end four weeks ago today.
So today, we’re throwing it back to four weeks ago when the Hawkeyes looked poised to make their run. It was to be their first run in some time. Under coach Fran McCaffery, Iowa has struggled in the Big Ten Tournament, but this roster looked like it had all the makings of a team to change that narrative.
This roster had the best big man in the country (and despite all the snubs for national player of the year, Garza was in fact named both the nation’s best big man and the Kareem Abdul-Jabar center of the year). But beyond Garza, this roster had the ancillary pieces you need around a star to make things happen. They had a sharpshooter in CJ Fredrick, who led the Big Ten in 3-point efficiency. They had another potential star in Joe Wieskamp, who could do it all when he was hitting. They had that defending, penetrating guard they’ve lacked in Joe Toussaint. They had a tremendous complement to Garza in Ryan Kriener who could play inside-out. And they had the straw that stirs the drink in the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio with Connor McCaffery.
What’s more, the Hawkeyes had a Big Ten Tournament bracket that looked about as favorable as you could have asked for. In their first game, Iowa was set to face off with a Minnesota team they throttled at home and outlasted in Minneapolis. From there, it was supposed to be the rubber match with an Illinois team who needed quite a bit of assistance to pull out a 2-point win in Champaign after getting handled in Iowa City.
Beyond the first two games, Iowa would have been forced to face the #1 seed. But this season, that was a Wisconsin team that Iowa had no problems with in the regular season. In reality, they were just as likely to face the #8 seed Rutgers or the #9 see Michigan. Both would have obviously been worthy opponents, but either was going to scare a then-rolling Iowa team with the tools mentioned.
This was the year for Iowa to get the mojo rolling in the Big Ten Tournament and then build on Fran’s prior success in the NCAA Tournament. While Iowa has rarely lost in the first round of the tournament under Fran, they have yet to advance to that coveted Sweet Sixteen. As with the Big Ten Tournament, the pieces were in place to have a shot at a run in the NCAAs this season.
But as we’ve seen, having the pieces doesn’t always mean success. Iowa had the pieces several years ago under REDACTED. They had the star big (we can debate how big he really was) man who could do it all in Greg Brunner. They had the second star in swing man Adam Haluska who could knock it down from anywhere or take his man off the dribble and pull up. They had a dynamic backcourt duo in Jeff Horner and Mike Henderson. And they had a slew of weapons to mix in off the bench.
That group in 2005-2006 had a hell of a year. They went 25-9 and did something no Iowa team has done since: they ran the table and won the Big Ten Tournament. It was an incredible run and one of the most exciting times I can remember as an Iowa fan in the prime of my fandom. But it all came crashing down.
After earning a 3 seed and a virtual lock to get back to that coveted Sweet Sixteen, that group that had been so successful, that had all the tools, found themselves in a dog fight with a lowly 14 seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was such an unthinkable game to lose, I had the audacity to actually go to my class that afternoon and skip the middle hour of the game. It should have been a snoozer and I should have been able to catch the end.
It was not and I did not. Instead, as I came bursting into the middle of campus (not Iowa’s) I saw my roommate, also a die hard Iowa fan, burst out of our dorm across the lawn.
Except he didn’t say fudge.
I knew instantly we had found a way to blow it. I had the rest of the tournament to see exactly how over and over and over. And just when I thought I had blocked it from memory, I was able to remember again when it popped up in a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial.
After leading by 17 with 8 1/2 minutes left, Iowa allowed the Demons to cut it to 63-61 in the final seconds. Jermaine Wallace grabbed a rebound with 6 seconds left and launched a 3-pointer from the left corner as the clicked ticked under 1 second. He drilled it. Season over.
Some teams have all the pieces and can’t make the run. Others don’t have any of the pieces and catch a heater. We’ll never know what the 2019-2020 Hawkeyes could’ve achieved had they had an opportunity to compete in the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament. It would’ve been a blast to watch.
Now the question will be which pieces are in Iowa City next season, and whether that group will fare better than the last one to have the pieces for a deep run.