In Iowa City, success for the Iowa basketball team has been defined many different ways over the years. The definition is of course a derivative of expectations. Expectations are set by past success. Or failure.
The 2020-2021 basketball season has been a perfect microcosm of that phenomenon. In most years, a top-5 finish with the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, likely the nation’s Player of the Year and an entire season spent inside the top-15 nationally would be considered a raging success. But this year’s perception is likely to come down to the finish. Expectations entering this season were sky high with visions of a Big Ten regular season championship and a trip to the Final Four.
The former dream is dead. The quest for the latter starts next week.
But in the meantime, there is one more gauge of success which has long seemed to elude the Hawkeyes. Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten Tournament title since 2006. Before that, it was 2001. Those are the only Big Ten Tournament titles in Iowa basketball history.
And yet, one of the knocks on head coach Fran McCaffery has been an inability to advance to a Big Ten Tournament Championship in his 11 season in Iowa City. Just like in the NCAA Tournament, a big piece of advancing, and eventually winning, the Big Ten Tournament is having a higher seed.
Since its inception in 1998, only three teams have won the Big Ten Tournament title without being a top-4 seed. In 2017 and 2018, Michigan won the tournament as an 8 and 5 seed respectively. The other instance came in 2001, when the Iowa Hawkeyes were a 6 seed.
Every other season, it’s been a top-4 seed to take home the title. In total, a 1 seed has won the tournament nine times in the 22 years since its inception. A 2 seed has take the title eight times. Only twice has a 3 seed won it and just once in 22 years has a 4 seed come out on top.
This year, the Hawkeyes fit into that top-4 grouping that has won 86% of all Big Ten Tournament Championships. This marks the just the third time in tournament history Iowa will have achieved a 4-seed or higher. REDACTED accomplished the feat twice in 2006 and 2007 but no other coach has gotten Iowa to this point.
Thus, it has been 14 years since Iowa was in the kind of position it’s in this weekend. The only time in Tournament history the Hawkeyes have been seeded as high as they are this year was in 2006. Not coincidentally, that was the last time they won the whole damn thing.
In that glorious run, the Hawkeyes faced off with 10th seeded Minnesota in the second round. At the time, there were only 11 teams in the conference and the double bye was not yet a thing. The Gophers had upset 7th seeded Michigan in their opening match and were worn down in the second half against Iowa after holding the Hawkeyes to a 30-30 tie at the half. Jeff Horner led the way with 26 points and 6 assists as Iowa pulled away to a 67-57 victory to advance to the semifinals.
In the semis, Iowa again had a rest advantage as they took on a Michigan State Spartans team that had defeated Purdue and Illinois in back-to-back games and was playing their third game in three days. Jeff Horner again led the way with 14 points as the Hawkeyes came away with a 53-48 win to advance to their first Big Ten Championship Game in five seasons.
There, the Hawkeyes would again rely on a dazzling performance from Horner, who finished with 16 points and 10 assists. The Hawkeyes would go on to win 67-60 and the state was abuzz with possibilities for the NCAA Tournament.
We’ll ignore for now what ultimately came of that 2006 team in the NCAA Tournament, but the run they made to Iowa’s second Big Ten Tournament title was pure joy for Hawkeye fans. It was made possible be a good team getting good results all season to secure a good seed in the tournament.
We don’t know how 2021 will play out, but that seems to hold true for this team. The Hawkeyes are a very good team who have had a very good year. Sure we all wanted a regular season title, but this is still a top-5 team in the country. And the hard work all season has led to a 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and that all-important double bye.
Can this group make the most of it and get Iowa their first Big Ten Tournament title in 14 years? We’ll soon find out.
Iowa takes the floor on Friday evening with tip time set for 25 minutes after the conclusion of the Illinois-Rutgers/Indiana game. They’ll take on the winner of 6th seeded Wisconsin vs. 11th seeded Penn State. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.