“I think they’re a Final Four team because they’re, they make shots, they’re physical, they can change their defenses ...” — Seth Greenberg, ESPN basketball analyst
IOWA CITY — The lights turn dark, pump-up music blares and the video board screams highlights before every game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
A season ago, with the atmosphere built to dizzying levels moments before Iowa’s unveiled starting lineup, “On The Rise” was the catchphrase. Since November, the board has read “Rising.” Without a whiff of overconfidence, it now could read “Risen.”
No. 14/16 Iowa (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten), a century-long factor in Big Ten basketball, has resurrected into a league power after a near-decade-long malaise. CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated senior basketball writer Seth Davis labeled the Hawkeyes a Final Four dark horse earlier this week. Multiple bracket analysts consider Iowa at worst a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament.
It’s an amazing turnaround for a squad that was 11-20 three years ago in Coach Fran McCaffery’s first year. Iowa was so irrelevant on the national scene it didn’t play a game on CBS for seven years until last Sunday. But with an 84-74 victory at No. 3-ranked Ohio State, the Hawkeyes have become the national flavor of the week.
“We play one game on CBS and everyone’s sees it, obviously against a good opponent on the road and win it, and you go from maybe making the NCAA tournament to now making the Final Four or possibly being a Final Four team,” Iowa junior forward Aaron White said. “So I find that funny to be honest with you. I turned that on and kind of chuckled.”
“People last Sunday were saying you guys can’t finish a game,” senior Melsahn Basabe said. “It’s so temperamental where you can’t pay attention to it. But you do appreciate it, and it feels good when people give you credit.”
Some programs not used to the spotlight might succumb to overconfidence or pressure because of the added publicity. McCaffery, however, has no concern the exposure will overwhelm his players’ approach or their performance.
“I think as we move forward, if we lose, it’s going to be because we lose to a good team,” McCaffery said. “It’s not going to be because of that.”
Part of McCaffery’s confidence stems from his team’s veteran makeup. Iowa’s three seniors — Basabe, Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe — have played in 362 career games. The program’s struggles early in McCaffery’s tenure allowed juniors like White and Josh Oglesby to mature more quickly on the court. Even prominent sophomores Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury have significant experience. They’ve all dealt with media frequently, so only the stage is high-profile, not the cameras or the questions.
The national scope does have its merits. Marble, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, was voted the league’s midseason basketball MVP in a “BTN Live” fan vote. In Big Ten play he ranks second in scoring, second in steals and 13th in assists. He talks frequently with local reporters and also with national personalities like CBS Sports’ Doug Gottlieb. The attention is noticeable.
“You can’t really get away from it. I’ve seen stuff on TV, social networks and stuff like that,” Marble said. “There’s no point in shying away from it. You might as well embrace it. It wasn’t too long ago we weren’t getting anything at all. For me it’s just another steppingstone toward our ultimate goal. I still remain humble, the team remains humble and we just go to work every day and prepare for the next opponent on our list.”
That humility is important when facing longtime rivals like Minnesota (14-4, 3-2 Big Ten), a team with potential to knock off Iowa. The Gophers split with Hawkeyes last year and have played in three NCAA tournaments since Iowa’s last appearance in 2006. Outside of Northwestern and Big Ten newcomer Nebraska, Iowa’s eight-year NCAA drought is the Big Ten’s longest by five years.
That’s why staying grounded is vital for Iowa.
“You can never get too high or too low,” Basabe said. “Coach preaches that to us. We have good people here. I just can’t see us getting distracted by any hurray, hurray or whatever is going on. I don’t see that happening. We don’t have egotistic people on our team. That’s just not the situation.”
“We win one game, it doesn’t change any of our guys’ perception of what we already knew,” White said. “I don’t think we’ve put it all together. We’re still getting better, which might be the scary thing. I don’t think we’ve played the perfect game yet, obviously. But I believe in our coaches and our guys that we have a top team, and I don’t really care what national guys say or what other people think.”