ROSEMONT, Ill. — Lurking below the surface of Big Ten basketball lies Iowa, a program no longer considered a league Cinderella.
The Hawkeyes were tabbed for fifth by sports writers in an unofficial poll, but Fran McCaffery's coaching peers don't see Iowa as team on the cusp of competition. They see the Hawkeyes as a potential threat to the league's upper echelon.
"I think they're already there. I don't think it's close," Indiana's Tom Crean said Thursday at Big Ten Media Day. "I think they're there. They were right there last year. I think you look at the success that they had in the postseason, I think that's only going to help them. They along with Michigan State have the two most experienced teams in the league, so I think that's going to carry them a long way."
"I think that they've got good players that have developed in that program and kind of moved up together," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "If a couple of them really step up, especially the big kid, (Adam) Woodbury, if he steps up, I think that team has a chance to take a monster step."
Iowa finished 25-13 and was 9-9 in the Big Ten but just 2-7 on the road. Their late-game collapses in league play last year (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska, Michigan State twice) prevented the Hawkeyes from earning an NCAA tournament bid.
"Iowa could have been there last year," said BTN basketball analyst Jim Jackson, whose son, Traevon, knocked down a late 3-pointer for Wisconsin in a double-overtime win. "Some games they had at home where it was a 3-point shot here, Michigan State, a turnover here where they were there in that fifth or sixth position."
Iowa has the right recipe to take that next step. The Hawkeyes return 93 percent of their scoring from a team that won 25 games last year. They return third-team all-Big Ten players Devyn Marble and Aaron White, lose just seven total starts and sprinkle in only two newcomers. Both Peter Jok and Jarrod Uthoff provide different skill sets that complement their teammates. It's possible Iowa consistently will play 11 in its rotation.
"Obviously we're very optimistic about this year's team," McCaffery said. "(I) recognize the position we're in and welcome the challenge. I've not had a team in my entire career that is this deep."
Expectations beyond the program also are high. Iowa earned votes in the inaugural coaches' and writers' polls, and Jackson expects the Hawkeyes to compete for Big Ten's upper third.
"All of those guys kind of grew a little bit more," Jackson said. "Mike Gesell, a sophomore, understands. Woodbury adds a little bit more with his size. Melsahn Basabe seems like he's more focused this year and with Aaron White, there's a log jam at that position. They're deeper, guard play is much better.
"Fran finally has a group of guys that understands what he expects and how they have to play consistently hard offensively and defensively. I look for them to battle Wisconsin right there for that fourth position if they continue to improve where they left off playing in the NIT."
Michigan State, the league's unanimous preseason pick and ranked No. 2 by The Associated Press, beat Iowa twice last year by three points each. Both times the Spartans rallied from double-digit deficits to top the Hawkeyes.
"They lost a lot of games by this much," said Izzo, holding his fingers about an inch apart. "So you can say (McCaffery is) a bad coach because that's where coaching comes in. To me to get them there, he's a great coach. I just think they've got a perfect (situation): good coach, people are starting to support the program, a tough place to play and he's now got experience. Those guys are better and better."