IOWA CITY — With six wins in his team's last eight games, Iowa junior Melsahn Basabe likes his team's chances entering the Big Ten Tournament this week.
Not just competing, mind you. Winning the whole thing.
"If you’re not going in there thinking that, then you shouldn’t be there," said Basabe, who scored 11 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a 74-60 win against Nebraska on Saturday. "Obviously we feel like we’ve competed with every team we’ve played this year."
Only twice in Big Ten play has Iowa (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten) lost by double digits. Iowa's average margin-of-victory in Big Ten play is 11.3 points. In its nine losses, it's 7.9 points. If you take out the 28-point shellacking at then-No. 2 Michigan, Iowa's margin-of-defeat is 5.37.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery has taken three teams to the NCAA tournament. With Iowa's depth and skill, McCaffery said this team is capable of winning the Big Ten Tournament and gaining an automatic NCAA bid.
"Any time you win a tournament championship — and I've been fortunate enough to have some teams that have done that — it never seems to go exactly as everybody thinks it's going to go," McCaffery said. "You've got to have some guys step up. It might be one guy has one great game and six other people are really consistent, you don't turn it over, you rebound the ball, we make some threes. All those things together, and we have a team that's capable of doing it."
Of course it won't be easy. Iowa, a sixth seed, opens with 11th-seeded Northwestern (13-17, 4-13 before today's finale against Michigan State) at 8 p.m. Thursday at Chicago's United Center. The Hawkeyes won both meetings this year by double digits. At Evanston, Iowa held the Wildcats to 29.4 percent shooting in a 70-50 win. A big second half lifted the Hawkeyes to a 71-57 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last month.
If the Hawkeyes advance, they'll play at 8 p.m. Friday against Michigan State, who beat Iowa 62-59 in early January. Iowa is 2-3 against the Spartans in Big Ten Tournament play, including tournament losses the last two seasons.
"If we play the way we’re supposed to play, we should get a couple of wins throughout the tournament," Iowa freshman guard Anthony Clemmons said. "Hopefully we’ve got to come out and play our best and like I’m going to tell the guys, there’s no let-up. This is it. This could be our last game of the season or we could continue on. All we’re going to do is play hard, play smart and try to be consistent throughout the tourney."
Coincidentally, Iowa has a history in this spot. In 2001, Iowa was a sixth seed and beat Northwestern in the first round. The Hawkeyes ultimately won four games in four days to claim the Big Ten Tournament title. That's the focus now for Basabe and the Hawkeyes.
"Michigan is the only team that sort of blown us out," Basabe said. "We had Indiana, we had Michigan State, we beat Wisconsin. There’s not a team in it that we’re not capable of beating. It’s all about us coming in with the right mentality."
"We're in there to win the tournament," Iowa senior Eric May said. "That's what Coach said, the easiest way to get a bid is to win the whole tournament. Win four games in four days. That's the task ahead of us."
1. Iowa has a shot. With only two losses by double digits in Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes are among the league's most consistently competitive teams. Plus, Iowa needs to win at least two, maybe three games to get to the NCAA tournament. The team has a natural confidence that it will compete this week and get into the NCAA tournament. It's certainly possible.
"I think we deserve tremendous consideration," McCaffery said. "I definitely feel like we're one of the best 68 teams. I think to have gone through this league, clearly the best league in the country, and finished 9-9, I think you look at how we played in our losses, we had a double overtime loss, an overtime loss, we played Michigan State without our leading scorer, we won three out of four without our third leading scorer and our starting point guard. So we've accomplished a great deal."
2. Perfect May performance in finale. Guard/forward Eric May got the start in his final regular-season appearance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and played 27 minutes. He scored just two points but he had six assists, six rebounds, a steal and only one turnover.It was the typical solid performance that has defined his senior season.
"I'm lucky to be a part of it, to come play basketball here and get the love from the fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, I'm really going to miss that," May said.
May is the consummate team performer. It was only his third start and possibly his last, but it was the perfect ending to a career. Iowa was 10-22 his freshman season and now Iowa is 20-11. May is the only player left to see the lowest of lows and now enjoying the program's rise.
3. Watch out for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have outperformed their expectations this year and they could make a jump next year. Nebraska has only eight scholarship players and loses talented guard Dylan Talley and solid post Brandon Ubel. But they've got three players red-shirting and an engaging, smart coach in Tim Miles, who has the team playing hard and disciplined. Five Big Ten wins were about four more than I expected. Of the 24 beat reporters ranking the teams last October, 23 picked Nebraska for last. But with a new arena next year and an underrated fan base, the Miles era might be fairly productive in Lincoln.