Tournament offers teams chance to reboot season

Falling short in regular season gives Iowa, B1G competitors chance to redefine goals

Published: March 12 2014 | 2:00 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:30 am in

IOWA CITY†ó Two years ago on the regular season's final Sunday, Michigan State lost its chance at an outright league crown when Ohio State's William Buford drilled a jumper with 1 second left for a 72-70 win.

The defeat filled Spartans Coach Tom Izzo with distaste. Michigan State had to share the regular-season crown with the Buckeyes and Michigan, and Izzo immediately established the tone for the following week's Big Ten Tournament.

Amid the post-game senior day festivities, Izzo told the Breslin Center crowd, "We're going to go win our championship back." Michigan State, fueled by Izzo's statement, easily dispatched Iowa and Wisconsin by double digits, then topped Ohio State by four points for the tournament crown.

"That was the battle cry for our guys. We want to go get our title back," Izzo said Monday.

Izzo redefined his team's immediate goals based on a bitter regular-season finale. Like Michigan State two years ago, Iowa could offer up its own reboot to its choppy regular season finish as it enters this year's Big Ten Tournament at Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Iowa, losers in five of its final six games, were rated as high as No. 10 late in January and stayed in the national rankings from early December through Monday. Iowa sat one game behind both Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten's loss column before its Feb. 22 game against Wisconsin. A grueling, last-second loss to the Badgers quickly was followed by back-to-back road upsets to Minnesota and Indiana. The season ended with defeats to Michigan State and Illinois.

The recent skid cost the Hawkeyes their chance at a regular-season title, and the freefall forced them to play an opening-round tournament game for the eighth straight season. The Hawkeyes' disappointment is palpable, but for Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, there's still a shot at bringing home some hardware.

McCaffery looks at his team's championship goal as one and the same. He doesn't split differences between a regular-season crown or a tournament title. Both count, in his eyes.

"We are going to try to win a Big Ten championship, but we said that first August when we convened before we went overseas," he said. "We're here to win a Big Ten championship, let's go get ready for that. That's what we're going to try to do this week."

McCaffery's players also keep their focus on the championship chase but think slightly differently from McCaffery. Sophomore guard Mike Gesell has closed the chapter on the regular season. The goal now is redefined and the regular season is minimized.

"Itís like a completely new season," Gesell said. "What we did during the regular season doesnít matter now because once you lose, youíre done. So itís tournament play time.

"The regular season is basically just trying to set up your seeds for the postseason. Itís all about match-ups and things like that. Itís like a completely new season and I think weíre excited, energized and ready to go."

Many coaches in major conferences view the 10-week regular-season title as more worthy than the four-day postseason tournament. But the tournament does give the Big Ten a high-profile window where all of its teams compete on a neutral court. The league also awards its automatic NCAA bid to the tournament champion so it has tangible value.

As it did in 2012, the opportunity to quickly set a new goal after disappointment has merit this year for Izzo. While Michigan State didn't plunge as far as Iowa, the Spartans were ranked No. 1 nationally in November and now sit 22nd. They finished three games behind instate rival Michigan in the Big Ten race. The opportunity to reboot the season is a key motivator.

"I think it can be a big factor this time going to the Big Ten Tournament whether itís a team like us or Iowa or even a Wisconsin," Izzo said. "Weíve had all had good years in a lot of ways, but Iím not sure you can ever meet expectations anymore, and I understand that."

The end-of-season disappointment for Iowa is fresh, but the next goal has become the first goal. That's to win the Big Ten Tournament.

"Our goals and expectations havenít changed," Iowa sophomore Adam Woodbury said. "I mean maybe the path isnít what we wanted, the path is a little bumpier than we thought it would be, but weíre still pushing forward. We know weíve got the talent and the team to do it. Itís all about execution now."

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