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What is the Legacy of the 2020-21 Iowa Basketball Team? The Answer is Complicated.

Only time will tell whether the 2020-21 Hawkeye team proves to be frustrating pinnacle of the Fran McCaffery experience or a clear sign of better things to come. 

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon at Iowa IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

It goes without saying that the end of Iowa’s 2020-2021 men’s basketball season was extremely disappointing. While fans harbored dreams of a return to the Elite 8 or the Final Four, the Hawkeye defense came out flat against the Oregon Ducks, resulting in Iowa’s premature exit in the Round of 32. Many of Iowa’s most devoted followers would have testified before the season that a loss in the Sweet 16 would have been viewed as an underachievement given the team’s combination of returning production and intriguing young talent. Instead, the Hawkeyes missed the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament entirely, continuing an unfortunate streak that has been ongoing since Iowa’s last Sweet 16 berth in 1998.

Given the dispiriting end to Iowa’s season, it’s worth asking how this Iowa team will ultimately be viewed by the fanbase in years to come. On one hand, the Hawkeyes’ accomplishments this season are undeniable. Iowa’s 14 Big Ten wins tied the school record for the greatest number of conference victories of any team in school history, while its #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament tied the 1987 squad for the best seeding earned by any Hawkeye team and served as a testament to the quality of the team’s play throughout the year. Iowa dealt Michigan State its largest home loss of the Tom Izzo era, went 3-0 against their hated rival Wisconsin, beat ACC powerhouse North Carolina, and defeated a top five opponent on the road in their 73-57 victory over #4 Ohio State in February. The Hawkeye offense scorched the nets all season long, averaging more points per game (83.7) than any Iowa team since the 88-89 squad. Iowa players shattered program records this year, with Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon becoming the career scoring and assist leaders respectively. Garza will finish his career as the only Hawkeye ever to win two Big Ten Player of the Year Awards, be named a two-time first-team All-American, and be named national player of the year.

Yet seasons are ultimately measured by how they end. The Hawkeyes had legitimate aspirations to raise a new banner in Carver Hawkeye Arena, yet failed to win either a regular season or Big Ten Tournament title or to make much of an impact on the NCAA Tournament. The accolades bestowed on Garza and Bohannon only heighten the sense of missed opportunity, as the Hawkeyes are not likely to see the likes of Garza or his supporting cast of precision passers and dead-eye sharpshooters any time soon. If Iowa is capable of reaching greater heights under the guidance of Fran McCaffery, wasn’t this the team’s best chance to do so? Even Iowa’s regular season victories appear diminished by the results of the tournament, as early exits by Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, along with the collective underachievement of the Big Ten, call in to question whether the Hawkeyes were ever really as good as the national media believed them to be.

However, as tempting as it is to adopt this purely cynical view, doing so clearly undersells the reality of how the Hawkeyes performed for the majority of the season. The Oregon game exposed what most Iowa fans knew from the team’s opening tip-off against North Carolina Central: that Iowa was a supremely talented offensive team that would struggle defensively against more athletic squads capable of beating them off the dribble. Oregon proved to be a bad matchup for the Hawkeyes, but does anyone doubt that Iowa would have fared far better had they instead been given the draw of their fellow #2 seed Houston, a team whose toughest opponent on the road to the Elite Eight was a Rutgers squad that Iowa defeated twice this year and who should be heavily favored to beat the #12 seed Oregon State Beavers on Monday? Only one team can cut down the nets at the end of the year, and it seems unfair to define the 2020-21 Hawkeyes simply based on how they concluded their season.

Still, it’s impossible to divorce this team from its preseason expectations. Shouldn’t a team with the nation’s most valuable player be expected to compete for a championship? Don’t Hawkeye fans have a right to occasionally expect their teams to make meaningful postseason runs, especially when schools like Butler, VCU, Loyola, and Oregon State have done so in recent years despite lacking Iowa’s recruiting and competitive advantages? The Hawkeyes are no stranger to #2 vs. #7/#10 matchups, having had the misfortune of being eliminated by #2 seeds in their three most recent tournament appearances prior to this one. It seems a shame that Iowa should finally position itself for a potentially successful NCAA Tournament run only to fall victim to the very upset that has long alluded the program under McCaffery.

There are significant parallels between the 2020-21 Iowa team and the 2005-06 squad that earned a #3 seed to the NCAA Tournament and was eliminated by #14 Northwestern State in the first round. Both teams featured proven veteran leadership and star players who would eventually be signed by NBA squads, but both squads were extremely one dimensional, with the 06 Hawkeyes relying on their exceptional defense to suffocate their opponents in the same way this season’s Iowa team was overly dependent on its offense to win games. Both team’s flaws had been exposed several times during the course of the season, but their strengths were pronounced enough that, given the right matchups, they were capable of making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. Ultimately, each team was done in due to their inability to compensate for their fatal flaws; the 05-06 Hawkeye squad suffered sustained scoring droughts which allowed Northwestern State to overcome a significant second half deficit while the 20-21 team repeatedly failed to get stops against an Oregon team that made mincemeat of Iowa’s perimeter defense.

A decade and a half after the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Hawkeye fans can reflect on the significant accomplishments of this once-beloved Iowa squad, but the sting of its untimely exit from the tournament will remain a sore spot for everyone who witnessed it. This year’s Iowa team may ultimately be destined for the same fate; Hawkeye fans will not soon forget the superhuman exploits of Luka Garza, but they are also unlikely to overlook frustration and disappointment they felt watching his team crumble against Oregon despite Garza’s best efforts to hold things together.

Strange as it may seem, the story of this year’s Iowa team has not been fully written. An unexpected run in next year’s tournament might cause fans to recall the 2020-21 season as the prelude to something greater, while a tournament drought the likes of which the program experienced after the 05-06 season could cause the wounds of Iowa’s early exit to fester and undermine Fran McCaffery’s hold over the program. After Iowa’s loss to Oregon, Luka Garza expressed his belief that the Hawkeyes have the coaching staff and the players needed to achieve post-season greatness. This year’s regular season campaign gives every indication that Garza is right, while Iowa’s postseason exit calls into question whether the Hawkeyes have officially reached their ceiling under Fran McCaffery. Only time will tell whether the 2020-21 Hawkeye team proves to be frustrating pinnacle of the Fran McCaffery experience or a clear sign of better things to come.