In an exercise designed to see if I can still get worked up over frivolous shit after 12 weeks of getting worked up over not-so-frivolous shit, we’re going to play the following game:
What if Iowa beats Tennessee in 2014 in Dayton in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four?
Actually, I’ve decided this important. And I think you’ll agree.
So let’s set the table. The year prior, Iowa sweeps the floor in the NIT before falling to Baylor in the finals. The arrow is pointing upwards in the program after Fran McCaffery posts records of 11-20, 18-17 and 25-13 in his first three years.
In 2013-14, McCaffery reaches his first NCAA Tournament as the Iowa coach with a 20-12 record. Expectations begin high for the year as Iowa makes it to the Battle 4 Atlantis finals, then beats Notre Dame at home to start the year 8-1.
The Hawkeyes bounce back from a loss to No. 4 Wisconsin by beating No. 3 Ohio State and Aaron Craft in Columbus. Iowa surges to an 8-4 conference record (19-6 overall) with six regular season games left on the schedule.
Iowa goes on to lose five of its final six, AND its first round Big Ten Tournament game to a lowly Illinois squad. The Hawkeyes, ranked as high as No. 15 a month earlier, back their way into the postseason ass-first by drawing Tennessee in something called the First Four in lovely Dayton, Ohio.
Some storylines surrounding the program to consider: Devyn Marble makes a legitimate case for BTPOY but loses out to Michigan’s Nik Stauskas. Aaron White is a more-than-capable scorer while Mike Gesell posts the best assist-turnover ratio in the conference. Melsahn Basabe kinda sorta regresses in his senior year, Gabriel Olaseni shows some flashes, Jarrod Uthoff is one year away, Josh Oglesby sees minutes as a three-point specialist who doesn’t specialize in anything of the sort, and I buy a Zach McCabe jersey after this:
At this time, I’m a senior at Iowa and the men’s basketball reporter for the Daily Iowan. I cover every home game, travel to many of the away contests and hold off on spring break with my friends for the chance to follow the team as they make a deep run into the Tournament, hoping it’ll give my résumé ammunition as I prepare to apply to sports sections across the country.
Lots of dreams for lots of people died in Dayton.
I remember being nervous that selection Sunday. Some projected Iowa as high as a nine seed, while many others placed the Hawkeyes on the outside looking in, following the first of what would become a handful of Fran February Fades.
I was at my parents house in Minneapolis where I learned I’d be heading to Dayton for St. Patrick’s Day, and then Raleigh if Iowa were to prevail. That was putting the cart before the horse.
I didn’t know shit about that Tennessee team. But after media introductions in Dayton, I had a feeling Iowa wouldn’t be advancing, based on nothing more than the physical appearance of the Vols.
At 6-8, 280 and 250 lbs apiece, respectively, Tennessee forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon looked like a couple of Carl Davises. It truly felt like a Space Jam Monstars moment. Who the Hell is going to guard these guys, I thought to myself. No one knew.
Stokes and Maymon combined for 27 points and 20 rebounds in Tennessee’s overtime win. Stokes opened the extra period with an and-1, and that would’ve been enough to put it away as the Hawkeyes scored just one point during all of overtime, going 0-8 from the floor. (NBA guy Josh Richardson dropped 17 in the game, going 6-13 from the field while nabbing 8 boards. There was no stopping thunder and lightning.)
Tennessee didn’t even sniff a lead in the game until 3 minutes remained, but we’re not re-litigating the contest. We’re here to talk about what would happen if Iowa came away with a win.
The day of the contest, some guy named Ken Pomeroy declared on some website called Deadspin that Tennessee, an 11 seed, was among the best teams in the country. He was kind of right, but his piece is memorable because of how little it mentions Iowa:
However, our time with the Vols may be short. If the oddsmakers are correct, their season has a good chance of ending in an opening-round game tonight against similarly underseeded Iowa.
And that’s it. You didn’t account for this alternative history did ya, Mr. KenPom?!
After beating Tennessee in the play-in, the Hawkeyes face a six-seeded UMass team that went 24-9 in the A10 or whatever it’s called. Cakewalk city.
God smiles on the Hawkeyes as three-seeded Duke falls to 14-seed Mercer that same day, setting the table for Fran McCaffery’s first Sweet 16 run as a Hawkeye.
Iowa faces a familiar foe in Indianapolis: No. 2 seed Michigan. The Hawkeyes split games against the Wolverines during the conference slate that year, losing 75-67 in Ann Arbor on Jan. 22, then taking the home game handily against the No. 10 Wolverines 85-67 two weeks later.
I’m not comfortable making a prediction for Iowa & Michigan’s third and incredibly hypothetical matchup. Michigan beat Tennessee by two before losing to eventual runner-up Kentucky 75-72.
What I do know is this: if Iowa beats Tennessee, the Hawkeyes make it to the Sweet Sixteen. Six years later, we’re still not sitting on our hands wondering when (if?!?) that’ll ever happen with McCaffery at the helm.
On my sports-scribbling sojourn in Raleigh, I get to write some Pulitzer-worthy columns about this sparkling Iowa team that land me a job at the Kansas City Star after graduation.
I get to cover a Royals World Series win, and then a Chiefs Super Bowl. Eventually a hedge fund vampire buys the KC Star and I’m forced to take a corporate buyout and join the PR team at some nearby Fortune 500 like Cerner. My weight continues to fluctuate between 250 and 300 lbs, I drive a pickup, adopted more than one rescue dog and have a wedding ring that was returned to me sitting in my sock drawer. I start listening to Alex Jones during my commutes.
Maybe it’s good Iowa shit the bed in Dayton. Remind me to send Fran an Edible Arrangement.
Anyway, if Iowa beats Tennessee, we don’t hear about the aforementioned Fran February Fade until two years later, if at all. If Iowa beats Tennessee, Maybe guys with names like Tyler Ulis, Lourawls Nairn, Larry Austin, Trevon Bluiett, Donovan Mitchell, OG Anunoby, or Juwan Morgan rethink their college decisions. Maybe someone not named Trey Dickerson transfers to Iowa that offseason.
No matter how you slice it, I think it’s tough to imagine anything other than outside perception being all that much different for Iowa in this scenario. The shine of a Sweet 16 berth would be nice at the time, and it’d be a nifty laurel to rest on for Fran defenders while quieting some of his detractors, but big picture I don’t think it does all that much.
McCaffery literally just coached a legitimate national player of the year contender and had his team poised to make a run in the postseason with the most shallow roster he’s had since he arrived in Iowa City.
You have to remember, the Hawkeyes posted a really solid season in 2014-15, going 21-10 and 12-6 in conference, which includes a six-game winning streak to end the year before falling to Penn State in the BTT. Iowa takes its seven seed and downs Davidson before falling to Gonzaga for Fran’s first real tourney appearance at Iowa.
Iowa was ranked for just one week that year, getting a No. 25 mark from the AP in the middle of the year. It was a somewhat forgettable season, while also vindicating a coach who undoubtedly had his team under-achieving the year prior. Without advancing in that 2014 NCAA Tournament, we began drafting the script we’d use to chide Fran McCaffery for years to come.