Fran McCaffrey and the Iowa Hawkeyes are back in the NCAA Tournament for the 3rd straight season. The 21st century has not been a golden age for Iowa Basketball, but historically the Hawkeyes do boast a respectable 25 tournament appearances, which is tied with Maryland for 6th-most in the Big Ten Conference.
McCaffrey has been at the helm in Iowa City since 2010 and has put together four straight 20-win seasons, a level of success not seen since the Dr. Tom Davis era in the 1990s. The last time the Hawkeyes reached the second weekend of the tournament was in 1999, Davis's final season.
Let's take a deeper dive into the the history of Iowa in the tournament, going back to way before anyone called it March Madness or the Big Dance.
Iowa exploded on to the NCAA Tournament scene in 1955, reaching the Final Four in their first ever tournament appearance. The "Fabulous Five" took down Penn State and Marquette before falling to La Salle in the national semifinals. Fortunately for Iowa, NBA early-entry didn't exist in the 50s and the Five all returned as seniors. Under coach Bucky O'Connor, the team made it back to the Final Four for the 2nd straight year. This time they took down Temple in the semifinal before falling to the Bill Russell-led undefeated San Francisco Dons in the national championship game.
The Hawkeyes made it back to the tournament in 1970, this time thanks to the "Six-Pack," a team that went a perfect 14-0 in Big Ten Conference play. Named for the six players who played most of the minutes, the team set a Big Ten record scoring 102.9 points per game in conference play. The tournament didn't go nearly as well as conference play, as the Hawkeyes lost their first game 104-103 to Jacksonville. They did earn some high-scoring consolation in the regional 3rd place game with a 121-106 beatdown of Notre Dame.
Lute Olson and the early 80s
Legendary coach Lute Olson took over at Iowa in 1974 and took the Hawkeyes to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1979-83 before heading off to Arizona. 1979 was the first tournament with "seeds," and as a 4-seed the Hawkeyes fell to 5-seed Toledo in their first game. As we will see in just a bit, the Hawkeyes would be a fixture in the tournament for the 20 year-period following this appearance.
The 1980 Tournament was a magical run for the Hawkeyes. As a 5-seed, the team knocked off 1-seed Syracuse on the way to the program's third appearance in the Final Four. The magic ran out against Louisville in the semifinals, and Iowa also fell to Purdue in the all-Big Ten national 3rd place game (as an aside, I'm wholly in favor of bringing this game back). The Hawkeyes went a combined 3-3 in the next three tournaments, reaching the Sweet Sixteen in Olson's final season at Iowa.
Post-Olson and Dr. Tom Davis
George Raveling arrived from Washington State and took over for Olson. He led the program to two winless tournament appearances in 1985 and 1986 before heading back west to take over at Southern California. On to the scene came Davis, who led the Hawkeyes to nine tournament appearances in his thirteen years at the school. Davis's teams at Iowa were a perfect 9-0 in the first round of the tournament.
Davis's Hawkeyes made their deepest run in the tournament in his first year at the helm, reaching the Elite Eight. Of the nine tournament runs, five were ended at the hands of a number one seed. The final tournament ledger for Davis was 1 Elite Eight run, 2 Sweet Sixteen appearances, and 6 second-round exits. The second Sweet Sixteen was in Davis's final season at Iowa, and the Hawkeyes haven't made it that far since.
21st Century Struggles
Since the turn of the century, the Hawkeyes have made the tournament six times. Iowa fans are hoping that the program makes more noise in the sixth go-around than the first five combined. Under Steve Alford, the program lost in the second round to Kentucky in 2001, lost to Cincinnati in the first round in 2005, and suffered an embarrassing upset to 14-seed Northwestern State as a 3-seed in 2006. In his first tournament appearance at the school in 2014, McCaffrey's Hawkeyes fell to Tennessee in the First Four in Dayton. Last season, Iowa bullied past Davidson in the first round but couldn't handle 2-seed Gonzaga in the second round.
Coach Fran McCaffrey has gotten the program back to consistent tournament contention after the bleak years of Todd Lickliter. The next step for the program is embarking on a lengthy tournament run, and many fans would be thrilled to see a Sweet 16 appearance this year. If the current foundation of the program is as strong as it appears, the Hawkeyes could very well be beginning another 20-year stretch of being a familiar face in the Big Dance.