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Can Iowa Break its Big Ten Tournament Curse?

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The Big Ten Tournament has been Iowa’s kryptonite during the entirety of Fran McCaffery’s tenure. Will this season be any different?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Fran McCaffery has accomplished much during his 12-year tenure as head coach of the Iowa men’s basketball team, yet as the Big Ten Tournament approaches, one cannot help but dwell on one arena of competition where McCaffery’s program has consistently come up short. Iowa’s recent struggles in the Big Ten Tournament have been impossible to ignore, particularly when contrasted with the sustained success the Hawkeyes have achieved in recent years. Iowa’s tournament record under McCaffery is a paltry 5-10, the program has zero wins over better-seeded teams, and it has made only one trip to the semifinals (last season, the only time Iowa has received a double-bye in the tournament). The Hawkeyes have lost three games as a single-digit seed against opponents with double-digit seeds, including twice while holding the same #5 seed they possess as they enter the 2022 tournament.

Yet it was not long ago that Iowa was considered the scourge of the Big Ten Tournament. Steve Alford’s Hawkeyes won two tournaments in eight years, including in his second season in Iowa City as a #6 seed. When Alford left Iowa for New Mexico after the 2006-07 season, Iowa was tied for the most tournament championships in the history of the event. Even now, after years of ineptitude in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hawkeyes still hold the sixth best winning percentage over the life of the event at 46.2%, largely on the strength of the team’s performances during the Alford years.

Of course, success or failure in the Big Ten Tournament is not necessarily indicative of the overall quality of a coach. Few Iowa fans would declare Alford’s tenure in Iowa City more successful than McCaffery’s, and many excellent coaches like former Maryland boss Mark Turgeon had long tenures as their school without ever making the conference championship. Still, Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament draught has held Iowa back from achieving its full potential during the McCaffery era, preventing the program from hanging championship banners from the rafters of Carver-Hawkeye Arena and ensuring that they rarely if ever enter the NCAA Tournament on a hot streak.

Could this year’s Hawkeye squad be the team to finally break the tradition of disappointing tournament exits? The Hawkeyes enter the event playing their best basketball of the season and are winners of eight of their last ten games, with one of those losses coming due to an uncharacteristically terrible free throw shooting performance on the road at Illinois. Keagan Murray is one of the most dynamic and efficient players in the country and leads one of KenPom’s five most efficient offenses while also anchoring one of the best defenses the Hawkeyes have fielded in several seasons. Kris Murray and Tony Perkins are developing into impact players in real time, while veterans Jordan Bohannon and Connor McCaffery have seen everything Iowa’s conference opponents have to offer several times over. If Patrick McCaffery is able to return to the court at full health, Iowa will likely enter the tournament as one of the teams its Big Ten rivals are least eager to face.

Furthermore, Iowa appears to have a relatively favorable path to the semi-finals. Thursday’s matchup will pit the Hawkeyes against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Nebraska and Northwestern, two teams Iowa defeated by a combined 54 points over three games. If the Hawkeyes can avoid yet another upset as the #5 seed, they will face a Rutgers team that is only 2-3 in its past five games and who beat Iowa early this season largely on the strength of an impossibly poor offensive performance which the Hawkeyes are unlikely to repeat. Should Iowa finally manage two wins in the Big Ten Tournament, they would likely face either Illinois with a chance to avenge last Sunday’s loss or the winner of the Michigan/Indiana game, two teams the Hawkeyes have already vanquished this year.

Yet history tells us that projecting a deep tournament run would be an act of putting the cart before the horse. Iowa had won seven of its past eight games last season before finishing 1-1 in the tournament, and the 2014-15 Hawkeyes were riding a six-game winning streak before falling to 13th-seeded Penn State in their first game. The 2021-22 Hawkeyes are certainly talented and accomplished enough to break the program’s streak of ill luck, yet the same could have been said for several Iowa teams that came before them. A team’s lasting legacy is written in March; the next four days will go a long way towards determining whether this Hawkeye team can recapture the program’s Big Ten Tournament glory of years past or face he same fate of McCaffery’s other Iowa squads.