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The wait of expectations

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With two games left, Iowa can cement 2021 as the greatest regular season of a generation

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (18-7, 12-6). If this were a tweet, that would be it.

The Number Five Iowa Hawkeyes, in March.

A stat which floated the Internet was this is the first time in many lifetimes when Iowa has been ranked so high so late in the season. 1956, to be exact was when that last occurred. Three of Iowa’s top four scorers were named Bill. They lost to another Bill - Russell - in the national title game that season.

So yeah, it’s been a long time since Iowa was here in March. Truthfully, they’ve been here all season with a top 5 ranking to begin the season (KenPom had them at 13, for posterity). The Hawks have operated largely within that range for the whole season. The only time they dropped out of the top 10 was the weeks after dropping two straight to Ohio State and Indiana and two of their prior three games.

And really, that was the nadir of Iowa basketball (so far) this year. Fran McCaffery was boiling over; the locals were restless as the most immediate goal - regular season Big Ten championship - remained elusive; the health of a CJ Fredrick was constantly in doubt.

How much of it is connected is fair to ask but it’s clear Fredrick’s return to near 100% has aligned nicely with a stretch of five wins in six games and Iowa holding their destiny in their hands as it pertains to the B1G double-bye and even more for the NCAA tournament.

So let’s take a reset of the preseason goals, how the context has shifted, and what Iowa can do to capitalize on where they’re at:

Big Ten Title

Iowa was the highest of the conference’s seven ranked teams coming into the season at 5 and had their share of backers for a Big Ten title. More than anything, Michigan happened and put a stake in the ground Iowa could not match during the Wolverines’ 23-day break. On January 22nd, UM was 8-1 to Iowa’s 6-2 and with a torrid run, Iowa could have pushed for the top seed.

We know what happened, the Hawks lost Fredrick in their second B1G loss and fell to 9-5 by the time Michigan played their next basketball game. Even if Iowa has Fredrick in all those games, it’s unlikely Iowa runs the slate and the loss to Michigan still probably happens as it did.

There’s no crime in not keeping pace with the Wolverines and Iowa has settled into pole position for the next best thing: the double bye.

I understand banners are not hung for finishing top 4 in conference but it would be the highest Big Ten seed Iowa has had in the conference tournament since 2006, the last time they won the conference tournament. Additionally, the biggest side effect of getting the Big Ten title would have been receiving an NCAA #1 seed. The path for a 1 seed is still there which is absolutely as good as you could have asked for even though the conference title fell by the wayside.

Further, 14 wins (if Iowa can win the next two) would be the most in conference since 1987 and the accompanying .700 winning percentage would be the best since 2006, who went 11-5 or .688.

NCAA tournament run

Iowa has operated in the AP top 5 for nine of the 15 weeks it has been released so far. These nine weeks bring Fran McCaffery’s total number of weeks that high to 13 (four in 2016). What makes it even more remarkable is Iowa had not been ranked in the top 5 since January 1989, 21 years before McCaffery took over.

In other words, Fran navigated as high of expectations as Iowa has ever had with relative aplomb.

What it means for NCAA tournament seeding is alluded to above: they’re a projected two seed now and have the destiny in their own hands to move up to a 1 seed with two wins over Nebraska & Wisconsin, a third in the conference tournament, and a fourth over Illinois, who currently occupies Joey Brackets’ final 1 seed (this looks unlikely after they thoroughly dispatched Michigan).

Could things go sideways? Absolutely, this is Iowa we are talking about, but it is hard to envision them getting to a 4 seed barring a worst case scenario (this involves a loss on Thursday). A 4 seed, though, would be the highest Iowa has been seeded since 2006 (3) and if Iowa can hold onto a 2 seed, it would be the first time they’ve been that high since 1987.

And yes, being seeded higher matters. Here’s the breakout over the last 10 tournaments of how far each seed has gone:

Top 4 Seed advancement, last 10 years

Seed 0 Wins 1 Win Sweet 16 Elite 8 Final 4 Runner Up Championships
Seed 0 Wins 1 Win Sweet 16 Elite 8 Final 4 Runner Up Championships
1 1 7 8 11 3 3 7
2 4 11 7 11 5 1 1
3 6 12 11 7 1 2 1
4 8 9 16 3 3 1 0

Put another way, a 1 seed advances to the Sweet 16 80% of the time and the Final 4 32.5% of the time.

  • 2 seed - Sweet 16, 62.5%; Final 4, 17.5%
  • 3 seed - Sweet 16, 55%, Final 4, 10%
  • 4 seed - Sweet 16, 57.5%, Final 4, 10%

The key point here is the path to a Final Four ups substantially if they can hold onto the 2 line, though it is still the rough equivalent of calling your shot on a dice.

Highlighting just how rare it is for Iowa to advance past the first weekend is simply how not rare it’s been for a number of Big Ten teams over the last 30 seasons:

So yeah, Iowa will need all the help they can get.

Individual accolades

Luka Garza entered as the National Player of the Year frontrunner and has only improved his game. He is scoring slightly more points (24.3 vs. 23.9) on less shots and in less minutes. His assists have ticked up. Even the biggest hater of his NBA prospects says it’s a runaway.

If he locks up the Big Ten Player of the Year, it would be his second, as would the presumed first team all-conference.

Pausing here for a second, Garza being named to the first team of the Big Ten would be the sixth Hawkeye since Fran took over, beginning with Roy Devyn Marble in 2014. The last guy before that? Adam Haluska in 2007. Then Greg Brunner in 2006. Then Andre Woolridge in 1997. All of this with 12 or 14 teams in the conference vs. 11 prior to 2012.

It’s a remarkable feat.

Keegan Murray could become the seventh Hawk voted to the all-Freshmen team during Fran’s tenure. He averages 6.9 points (9th among those in his class), 5.0 rebounds (2nd), 1.1 blocks (2nd), and 1.0 steals (2nd). He shoots the highest percentage from deep (40%) as those averaging more than 6 points/game.


While it hasn’t always felt like it at times, Iowa has lived up to expectations when one takes a long view of the season so far. There is more work to do, of course, but after years of lacking truly high preseason expectations, 2021 has been worth the wait.