IOWA CITY — Forget for a moment that Iowa endured a monumental slide that nearly took the Hawkeyes out of the NCAA tournament consideration.
Forget about the back-to-back losses to Illinois and Northwestern. Forget about the upcoming trip to Dayton for an NCAA tournament first-round game against Tennessee on Wednesday. Forget about all the problems over the last three weeks where Iowa lost six of its final seven games. That's what Iowa's players did Sunday night.
They thought about the big picture, if only for a second. For the first time in eight seasons, Iowa qualified for the NCAA tournament. That was the team's first goal this season, and they considered it an accomplishment.
"It means everything to me," Iowa senior Melsahn Basabe said. "It's an extreme blessing. I keep reiterating the fact that I'm here. Coach (Fran) McCaffery gave me the opportunity to come to a Big Ten school, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Now I get to play in the NCAA tournament, which is something that's so special and not a lot of people get to enjoy.
"I feel like we deserve it, and we're excited."
The Hawkeyes (20-12) will play Tennessee (21-12) in an NCAA First Four tournament game in Dayton at 8:10 p.m. (CT) Wednesday. The winner will travel to Raleigh, N.C. for a Friday game against sixth-seeded UMass (24-8). Tip for Friday's game is slated for around 2 p.m.
Iowa was considered the third-lowest at-large team, according to the seed list released after the selections were announced. The Hawkeyes were one of six Big Ten teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
The mood was subdued Sunday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena after the pairings were announced. McCaffery called the team's attitude "incredibly businesslike" and the team started to focus on Tennessee.
"Obviously a lot of hugging, but not jumping up and down on each other's heads and stuff like that," McCaffery said. "We're not that kind of team. They knew we were going to get in. They knew that our body of work was deserving. It was a matter of when our name was going to come up."
Iowa senior Devyn Marble said he and his teammates took the news in stride.
"I won’t say it was satisfying, because I still want to go deep in the tournament," Marble said. "It’s still possible, of course, and I feel like I’ve got the teammates around me and the coaching staff to be able to do so. Just being satisfied to be here really isn’t what I was looking for and I’m trying to win. We’re going to get ready and prepare and try to get back on track and see if we can get some momentum."
Iowa has a difficult route for any kind of success this tournament. Tennessee won five straight games before bowing out to top-ranked Florida in an SEC semifinal. The winner then faces UMass, which owns wins against NCAA tournament teams Nebraska, New Mexico, BYU, Providence, St. Joseph's, George Washington and VCU. Should the Hawkeyes advance into the round of 32, they'd likely face third-seeded Duke in Raleigh, N.C.
But starting in the First Four as an at-large doesn't automatically prevent a team from advancing, either. In 2011, Virginia Commonwealth won an 11-seed First Four game and advanced to the Final Four. Last year La Salle won a 13-seed First Four game and moved into the Sweet Sixteen. In 2012, South Florida won a 12-seed First Four game and picked up one more win afterward.
"You can’t control match-ups, you can’t control where you’re going, you can’t control who you’re playing," Iowa junior Aaron White said. "Just be grateful we’re going somewhere and we have the opportunity to win the thing."
The bid was Iowa’s 23rd all-time but first since 2006, when the Hawkeyes were a three seed. The Hawkeyes boast a 27-24 NCAA tournament record but have not won an NCAA tournament game since March 15, 2001.
This marks the sixth NCAA tournament appearance for Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery. This is the fourth program he has guided to the NCAA tournament; he previously took Lehigh (1987-88), North Carolina-Greensboro (2000-01) and Siena (2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10) to the tournament. McCaffery owns a 2-5 NCAA tournament record.
McCaffery is one of 12 coaches to take at least four different schools to the NCAA tournament. Joining McCaffery this year are Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis and UCLA’s Steve Alford. Oklahoma Coach Lon Kruger is the only coach to take five schools to the tournament.
"In terms of my professional accomplishment, obviously I'm proud of what we accomplished, my staff and I, but it's not about that," McCaffery said. "I think this particular journey has been unique, and it's been rewarding because in the beginning it seemed some days like it was insurmountable and we just kept plugging and we stayed positive."