CHICAGO — OK, that mandatory little piece of business is out of the way.
You probably wouldn’t FedEx the tape of the Hawkeyes’ 73-59 Big Ten tournament victory over Northwestern Thursday night to the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame. You might, however, bury it under the tracks of the Skokie Swift rail line if you’re a Wildcat.
Either way, the Hawkeyes’ Game of the Year was never going to be that one. Win or lose, it’s tonight against Michigan State.
“We know what’s in front of us,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, “but we welcome the opportunity.”
We can talk about the whims of the NCAA tournament’s men’s basketball committee from now until Sunday at 5 p.m. What matters and what doesn’t, no one knows but those nine men and one woman sequestered in Indianapolis.
What sure seems likely, though, is Iowa needing to knock off the eighth-ranked Spartans to get into the big tourney. Whether a win tonight would do the trick, I have no idea. Some say yes, some say no. Neither camp knows.
But Iowa’s chances would sure get a lot better with that win in its ledger. Not that Hawkeye players are talking like it’s become a one-game season.
“We’re coming in here to win a tournament, win a championship,” said Iowa senior forward Eric May, who had a game-high five assists and one pretty ferocious dunk. “The rest will take care of itself, the postseason play.”
Junior guard Devyn Marble put on a similar brave face, saying “I think what people are probably thinking is we’re just here trying to get a bid into the tournament. But like Eric said, we came here to win a championship. That’s the goal and the task at hand.”
For balance, freshman guard Mike Gesell pulled out the “We’re taking it one game at a time,” cliche in Iowa’s postgame press conference. But the party line of the team echoes what its coach said last Saturday after Iowa beat Nebraska. Namely, the Hawkeyes claim they’re here to make waves, not get on the good side of a bubble.
The problem is, it’s a lot easier said than done. Especially in the 2013 Big Ten. All Iowa has done here so far is defeat a shorthanded-by-injuries Northwestern team that got its last win on Feb. 2. But it had to start somewhere.
As for Michigan State, teams that already have their NCAA beds feathered make little more than token appearances at their conference tourneys. They conserve their energy, and dial it up again once they’re playing in the tournament everyone remembers.
However, the Spartans rarely conserve. Tom Izzo has 18 victories and three championships in this event, more than any other coach.
“(Michigan State) in so many respects, is almost the gold standard for what teams want to become,” McCaffery said.
MSU kind of glided through its 71-61 home win over Northwestern Sunday that closed its regular-season. That performance probably wasn’t the ideal thing for Iowa. Izzo undoubtedly chewed on his guys all week, and the man knows how to chew.
Michigan State is no mystery. As usual, the Spartans like to flex their muscles, on the boards and in screening teams into mulch. They are of a belief that basketball is indeed a contact sport. But they also always have players of great skills, and this year’s team is no exception.
However, even with a 24-7 record, nothing suggests invincibility from the Spartans. When they met Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan in succession late in the season, they lost to each. Just one win out of those three games would have given MSU another title-share.
After the game, McCaffery noted that his team has been drilled just once in Big Ten play (at Michigan). The eyeball test suggests the gap between Michigan State and Iowa has narrowed this season. Just how much, we’ll learn tonight.
Iowa lacks a win against a highly ranked team. It doesn’t have a victory of any significance away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But it got its feet wet in a good way here Thursday, and is playing with purpose and passion.
The Hawkeyes could have and probably should have blown out Northwestern. After building a 29-11 lead, they didn’t close things out. Well, of course they did, but not with enough authority to feel overconfident about anything. Which is probably for the better.
Most importantly for the team, though, Gesell got back in the swing of things very nicely with 13 points and 3 assists in 23 minutes after a four-game absence due to a foot injury. He reconfirmed that he is an important piece of McCaffery’s mosaic.
Also importantly, Marble played like a leader and a go-to guy down the stretch. He hit two 3-pointers in the game’s last 10 minutes.
In a game that had tightened up, though not to the point of being truly scary for the Hawkeyes, they made four threes from the 9:25 to the 4:45 marks of the second half. That was from a team not known for perimeter prowess.
But all of that became immediate ancient history once the game ended. It’s tonight or probably never for the Hawkeyes this season. Unless the NIT holds some deep meaning for them.
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