2014-2015 Iowa: The Hawkeyes Must Build Off NCAA Tournament Appearance

Peter Jok is a candidate to get major minutes for Iowa next season. - Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

Iowa's 2012-2013 season was a success that saw the Hawkeyes return to the Big Dance. Can Iowa build off its success next year?

Iowa's program is at a critical point.  For the first time since the 2006-2007 season, Iowa is coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and has the chance to make it to the Big Dance for the second year in a row.  Last year also marked the first season that Fran McCaffery was able to take the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament.  Last season brought a great deal of success to a program that hasn't seen much in its recent history.

No matter your take, the 2012-2013 season was a successful one for Iowa.  Winning 20 games, making the NCAA Tournament, and going 9-9 in the nation's best conference is nothing to overlook.  In fact, there are many teams (even in the Big Ten), that would love to have done what Iowa did last season.  The 2012-2013 season was easily McCaffery's most successful in Iowa City and easily the most successful since Steve Alford's last season at Iowa.  Plus, if you overlook Alford's 25-9 season in 2005-2006, Iowa's performance last year may be the program's best since 2000-2001.  When you're talking about having the second best season in over a decade, that's pretty significant.

Of course, as any person who watched Iowa last season will point out, that is a very, very positive outlook.  The "results" perspective is one that looks kindly on 2012-2013 Iowa, at least compared to Iowa's recent history.  But no Iowa fan can say that last season truly felt like the program's best season in nearly a decade and second best season in over a decade.  In fact, I wrote just last week that Iowa's team last season was one of the most frustrating  I could recall and that a pretty strong case could be made for Iowa to be considered as the single most underperforming team in the conference last season.

Think about this for a second.  On February 15th, Iowa was 19-6 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten.  For a team like Arizona or Florida, that record would not have seemed that great, but let's set the table a little further.  First, let's look at the wins.  Iowa had already beaten Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Xavier, and a Nebraska team that turned out to be pretty good.  That at least 5 or 6 quality wins right there.  Remember, this is mid February.  Iowa still had 8 guaranteed games left on the schedule so most considered Iowa an NCAA Tournament lock at this point.  Looking at the win total, a remaining schedule that featured some easier games, and what would likely be an easier 1st Round Big Ten Tournament game, things looked excellent for Iowa.

The other thing to remember is that Iowa had avoided any truly bad performances.  Sure, they had 6 losses in mid February, but it's really not that big of a deal, especially if none of the losses came against bad teams.  Here were Iowa's losses at that time of the season:

Team Venue Losing Score
Loss #1 Villanova Neutral 88-83 OT
Loss #2 Iowa State Road 85-82
Loss #3 Wisconsin Road 75-71
Loss #4 Michigan Road 75-67
Loss #5 MSU Home 71-69 OT
Loss #6 OSU Home 76-69

A loss is never good thing, but not one of those losses should be considered a bad one.  Hindsight is always 20/20, but every single one of those teams ended up doing pretty well.  Every one of those teams made the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin made the Final Four, 3 teams made the Elite Eight, 4 made the Sweet Sixteen, Michigan won the Big Ten, Villanova won the Big East, MSU won the Big Ten Tournament, and Iowa State won the Big 12 Tournament.  Again, losing will never be something to brag about, but Iowa made it to mid February without a single bad loss.  Just to add a little more emphasis, here is each team's NCAA Tournament seed:

Iowa's First Six Losses' Opponents' NCAA Tournament Seeding:

  • #2 Michigan
  • #2 Villanova
  • #2 Wisconsin
  • #3 Iowa State
  • #4 MSU
  • #6 OSU
So those opponents were pretty good.  Unfortunately for Iowa, this was not at all a sign of things to come.  After such a great start for a program suffering an NCAA Tournament drought, the Hawkeyes stumbled to a 1-5 record to finish the regular season, lost their Big Ten Tournament opener to Northwestern, and were knocked out of the 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament against Tennessee.  In fact, Iowa nearly missed the Big Dance altogether as they were forced to play in the "First Four" earlier in the week.

If I had told people after Iowa's road win over Penn State that they would barely make the NCAA Tournament, people would have laughed.  Maybe I've went a little off track, but the facts are pretty clear.  If you use a "results" based analysis for Iowa's last season, you are going to think Iowa performed pretty well.  However, if you actually break things down, the utter collapse of Iowa down the stretch is amazing.  If Iowa's last season can be compared to a night at a bar or club, imagine a DJ switching the music at 11 o'clock and playing nothing but Pitbull for the rest of the night.  Sure, the overall night may have been a good experience because the first couple of hours were great, but when you think back, the first thing you're going to remember is the 3 final hours of Pitbull.  Iowa's last season may have been good overall, but it left a sour taste in fans' mouths after that finish.

The point I'm trying to make is that Iowa's last season has to be viewed from both sides of the coin.  It certainly was progress for the program, but you wonder if that progress is going to last.  In fact, if Iowa plays anything like they did down the stretch last year, Iowa will be lucky to make the NIT.  We can talk all we want about "close" losses and "hard fought" games, but we're talking about one of, if not the deepest team in the Big Ten last year.  Even with that, Iowa couldn't pull off a Senior Night win over Illinois or a Big Ten Tournament win over Northwestern.  They couldn't even win one of those games.  Not even one.  When you have that many viable options , that many lineups, and players like Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, losing those two games back-to-back is simply inexcusable.  Whether you believe in "confidence," "attitude," or "team focus," there's no denying that losing those games had to be shocking.

It's not realistic or fair to pin one year's struggles on a new team and maybe I'm being too tough on Iowa's team next year.  The Hawkeyes certainly have pieces.  Aaron White is back and Iowa has some nice guys developing in Mike Gesell, Peter Jok, and Adam Woodbury.  If those guys take the next step, maybe Iowa doesn't drop off.  Iowa was ranked #7 on BTP's Power Rankings.  Their recruiting class was also ranked #12 in the conference.  However, the point I'm making is that Iowa should not be satisfied with "not dropping off" next season.  Maybe the Hawkeyes weren't the best team and maybe they didn't have the best roster in the conference last season, but they certainly were better than 6th in the conference and a 1st Round exit in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.  By "not dropping off," we're talking about truly underperforming the depth and talent of the team.  If Iowa can take the next step and really hit expectations, that has to be considered progress.

This year's Iowa team doesn't have to bear the struggles of last year's team, but from a program perspective, one does wonder how fans will view last year's Iowa season as time goes on.  Making the NCAA Tournament is great, but Iowa has to do it in more convincing fashion this year.  Maybe the team is a bit less talented, but maybe this year's Iowa team can outperform expectations instead of underperforming them.  If they can't, perhaps the success that Iowa fans so desperately want won't be coming as soon as many hoped.
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