In 2006 Steve Alford led the Iowa Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed after winning 25 games and the Big Ten Tournament. With all the momentum on their side it looked like he had the Hawkeyes primed for a tourney run but all of that faded when this happened. Alford only lasted one more season and his replacement, Todd Lickliter, never won more than 15 games.
Inheriting a mess of a program was Fran McCafferey, who came over from Siena after leading the Saints to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. After a poor first season, McCafferey coached the Hawkeyes to their first winning season since Steve Alford was in Iowa City. Last season McCaffery's Hawkeyes won 25 games, tying for the most wins by an Iowa team since the late 80s.
Now heading into the season there was some discussion about if Iowa was ready to make the jump from a middle of the pack NIT team to an upper tier Big Ten team looking at a NCAA bid. Well so far eleven games into the season and it looks like Iowa is primed for a return to the tournament.
In the only Big Ten game of the night, the Hawkeyes squared off against Fairleigh Dickinson. Iowa's offense came out swinging, scoring 92 points and winning in a laugher. While forward Melsahn Basabe was the only starter to reach double digits, four different backups scored 10 or more points and Iowa shot a solid 48.6% from the field. Even better? Outrebounding your opponent 54-31, including bringing in 19 offensive rebounds. Mix that with a solid defensive effort, few fouls and limited turnovers...this game was never in question.
Now Iowa is sitting pretty at 10-1 and four days to prepare for their biggest non-conference game of the season when they head to Ames to face rival (and ranked) Iowa State. A win would be pivotal for Iowa as it would be a nice addition to their tourney resume, putting less pressure on their conference performance. Right now Iowa does have 10 wins, but it should be noted none of them are really doing much for their resume. So far their highest ranked win would actually be over Drake, who has a RPI of 30th, followed by UTEP all the way down at 96th. Iowa missed a chance for a key win against Villanova (RPI-6th), but the Iowa State game will provide a second chance as the Cyclones are currently ranked 17th and are a top 25 team in the RPI.
However, the game might not matter much for Iowa if they can keep taking care of business. So far their strength of schedule is outside of the top 125, but the Hawkeyes should be a lock for the NCAA Tournament if they can hit 20 wins thanks to the status of the Big Ten. With Arkansas-Pine Bluff closing out their non-conference slate on the 22nd, worst case scenario for Iowa is a 11-2 record with two solid losses heading into Big Ten play. If they can't win in Ames, Iowa would likely need to pick up nine conference wins to be fine.
The scheduling gods didn't give Iowa much love here, with the Hawkeyes only drawing single plays against Nebraska and Penn State, but they do face Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois twice each. If Iowa can avoid a pletheroa of upsets, which seem abundant in conference play, they should win at least six of these games. That would leave them needing three wins over ten games, which seems like a realistic probability. Of course it means Iowa will have to win a few tough games down the stretch, something that they couldn't really do last season, but Iowa is looking like a rejuvenated team this season.
Regardless of their competition, the Hakweyes have seemed to improve on one of their biggest weaknesses... outside shooting. Mix that with a team that is running the floor and scoring one way or another and you have an offense that will be able to hang with anyone in the Big Ten. Iowa has also been straight up dominating on the glass and has been able to get to the line at will, making this team a very tough out for anyone in the conference. Everyone from Roy Devyn Marble to Melsahn Basabe have been playing good so far and the Hawkeyes have built quite a bit of depth to go alongside their vastly improved lineup.
I think Iowa still might be a little bit away from competing for the Big Ten title, but there is no reason this team won't finish in the upper portion of the Big Ten if they can keep this up. Regardless of if they can get the win on Friday, this Hawkeyes team will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.