College basketball is a wild game and perhaps no year has put that on full display the way this season has. Perhaps no team embodies that craziness quite like the Iowa Hawkeyes.
After fairing well in the early goings of a difficult non-conference slate, including beating the pants off #20 Iowa State, the Hawkeyes kicked off Big Ten play by dropping three straight to teams who are all now in the bottom half of the conference standings. For good measure, Iowa threw in the largest upset in modern college basketball history when they fell (at home) to Eastern Illinois as a more than 30-point favorite. They only escaped the death spiral by somehow shaking off the cobwebs and coming back from a 21-point deficit in their 4th Big Ten game of the season at home to Indiana.
Fast forward six weeks and the Hawkeyes had climbed out of the cellar to 9-6 in conference play and in a position to start seriously talking about earning the coveted double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament (coveted because just four times in the 23 season the tournament has been played has a team seeded lower than 4 won it - Iowa in 2006 and 2022 and Michigan in 2017 and 2018). Then the Hawkeyes stubbed their toe at Northwestern and followed that up by seemingly costing themselves not just a double bye, but also another seed line in the NCAA Tournament when they lost on the road at Wisconsin. That seemed to bleed over into a visit from Michigan State and the Hawkeyes seemed like a team on the brink of collapse.
But this is college basketball and this is the 2022-2023 season. So naturally, Iowa put together one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history and took down Michigan State 112-106 in OT following the now infamous stare down seen round the world.
That comeback, of course, came after Michigan State led almost the entire second half. With just 1:29 remaining in regulation, MSU led on the road by ten. They led by as much as 13 late in the game and shot an absurd 85% from beyond the arc during regulation. The Hawkeyes appeared dead in the water when Fran McCaffery opted to use almost the entirety of his timeout to stare down official Kelly Pfeifer, who T’d him up just over 30 game seconds prior for apparently saying something follow what would generously be called a miserable foul call against Ahron Ulis (which itself came less than a minute after an even worse non-call on the Spartans over the back).
This Fran McCaffery stare-down pic.twitter.com/BX5x7jBOv3— CBS Sports College Basketball (@CBSSportsCBB) February 25, 2023
It was a wild moment befitting the wild season and the wilder finish that would ensue. But whether you love or hate the outward emotion of Fran McCaffery, his display worked.
In the 1:29 that would follow, the Hawkeyes would hit five more triples and erase the 10-point deficit. It all culminated in a Payton Sandfort splashdown with 3.3 remaining in regulation. But the momentum carried over into OT, where Iowa outscored the Spartans 11-5 over the course of five minutes.
When it all ended, the Hawkeyes outscored the Spartans 31-15 over the final 6:29, holding Michigan State to just one made FG during that span. It was one of just four comebacks of 11+ points in the final minute of a game in college basketball history.
And then it kept working. With a very difficult road matchup in Bloomington looming, the Hawkeyes needed a lot of things to fall their way to lock up that double bye that seemed so close to their grasps ahead of the letdown in Madison. But this time there would be no disappointment.
Iowa rolled into Assembly Hall and blew the roof off the place (which candidly probably needs done before any more of it falls inside the arena). The Hawkeyes never trailed in a game where they shot 57% from beyond the arc.
It was in stark contrast to the rest of the season, where the Hawkeyes had been shooting an abysmal 28.6% from deep. In the 118 minutes and 30 seconds of game time that preceded the staring contest, the Hawkeyes had shot 18 for 81 from deep (22%). In the 46:29 since then, they’ve gone 18 for 30 (60%).
The hot shooting has propelled Iowa to a pair of wins over Q1 and Q2 opponents. In the 46:29 since the stare down, Iowa outscored MSU and Indiana 121-83 and held their opponents to 2 of 13 shootings beyond the arc (15%).
Iowa has scored 121 points in the last 46:30 since this moment. Please credit Fran McCaffrey. That’s a great look. pic.twitter.com/GtpozqmmRB— Men On Melrose (@menonmelrose) March 1, 2023
Now, after staring down official Kelly Pfeifer, Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes are staring down a lock on the double bye in the Big Ten Tournament if they can avoid a letdown on senior day this Sunday. And not just a double bye, but a very real likelihood of ending the year second in the Big Ten, which would be the best finish for the Hawkeyes since 2006 and just the third time since Lute Olson left for Arizona that Iowa has finished second in the conference.
It’s one of half a dozen ways this season could prove historic if Fran can channel the energy his team has played with over the last 46:29 of game play into the next two weeks of games.
For example, if Iowa locks up that double bye, it would be just the fifth time Iowa has had a top-4 seed in program history. A third of all the program’s conference tournament titles have come in those other four instances.
It’s an important step as one of the top four seeds has made the championship game every year since the Big Ten Tournament’s inception in 1998. All but four tournament champions ever have been a top-4 seed (the most recent, of course, was Iowa a season ago as the 5 seed).
Should the Hawkeyes win a second straight BTT title (a big IF), it would further the historical nature of this season. As it stands, only three other programs (MSU, OSU and Michigan) have more Big Ten Tournament titles since Fran McCaffery arrived in 2010. A second straight title would leave just Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans ahead of McCaffery and the Hawkeyes over the last 13 years. It would also make Iowa the fourth team to ever repeat as tournament champs (Michigan in 2017-2018, OSU in 2010-2011 and MSU in 1999-2000).
Perhaps more importantly, however, a win Sunday would push Iowa to 20 wins on the season. That would mark the 5th straight year over 20 wins, which would be just the fourth time in program history for such a streak. It would be the third winningest five year stretch in program history (110-52; .679 winning percentage) behind only the 1984-1989 stretch spanning George Raveling and Dr. Tom Davis (118-48; .711) and the 1978-1983 stretch under Lute Olson (106-43; .711).
Every other stretch of five years with 20+ wins has resulted in at least one trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That’s been the one monkey McCaffery has been unable to get off his back. Notably, though, the most recent stretch run came in 1994-1999 (106-52; .671) with the Sweet Sixteen coming in Dr. Tom’s final season.
Could this finally be the momentum Iowa needs to get things back to pre-REDACTED years? Is the stare down what takes Hawkeye fans from being mad, to being Mad Again?
I sure wouldn’t chance blinking and missing it.