IOWA CITY, Iowa — As far as disappointments go, this year’s NCAA Tournament selection show was a collective shoulder shrug for Iowa men’s basketball.
The Hawkeyes felt real pain four years ago when they were one of the top six teams left out. An in-or-out excruciating Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Michigan State loss sent the Hawkeyes to the NIT. It remains the most controversial defeat of the Fran McCaffery era, one that he called “bizarre” last week. Inconsistent officiating doomed Iowa in that game, which forced Big Ten officiating czar Rick Boyages to keep Teddy Valentine away from the Hawkeyes for a full year. That one hurt.
This year’s snub was mild by comparison. Iowa (18-14) was one of the last four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament but the emotion from fans was more loud exhale than punch-the-wall vitriol. Maybe it was because expectations were low after losing four starters with 392 career starts. Maybe it was a horrendous 3-5 season opening with all-star game-caliber defense. Or maybe it was because of a pair of three-game losing streaks in Big Ten play.
Perhaps the ultimate realization came last week in a 95-73 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. It was such a porous effort with everything at stake that it seemed Iowa didn’t deserve to go. Even McCaffery had his players in practice when the announcements ticked off the selection show. That doesn’t mean they were indifferent to a bid; it’s more of a sign that reality set in last Thursday night.
That said, picking up an NIT berth has value. In 2013, a ticked-off Iowa squad rattled off four straight postseason victories to land in the NIT title game. That included wins at Virginia and a thumping of Maryland at Madison Square Garden. A hole or two in the resume kept Iowa, Maryland, Virginia and eventual champion Baylor from the NCAA Tournament that year. Given the right matchup, all four could have won a game or two in the Big Dance that year.
The NIT is a sneaky-good tournament with flawed squads. Syracuse and Iowa each were 18-14 with 10-8 records in major conferences with RPIs in the 80s. That’s like a 40-year-old man in perfect health but with a triglyceride count in 400s. Illinois State was 27-6 and 17-1 in the Missouri Valley. But of the Redbirds’ four nonconference losses came to Murray State (16-17), TCU (19-15), Tulsa (15-17) and San Francisco (20-12). Georgia (18-14) and California (21-12) had nice RPIs in the 30s but were a combined 0-13 against top-25 teams.
All of those teams could make a case for NCAA inclusion, and all of them deserved to be left out. Of course ESPN gushed over Syracuse’s exclusion, but losing to Boston College (9-23), Georgetown (14-18) and St. John’s (14-19) devalued the Orange’s resume. Same goes for Iowa.
The best way for a team to prove it was snubbed is on the court. Ten different teams won regular-season league titles and picked up automatic NIT bids. They had hopes of becoming the next, great NCAA Tournament story like Valparaiso in 1998, George Mason in 2006 or Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. But now they will channel that disappointment to play again in some major environments.
— Coyote Basketball (@SDCoyotesMBB) March 13, 2017
Take South Dakota, for instance. The Coyotes travel to neighboring Iowa for a first-round game. It’s the first time South Dakota has played at Iowa since 1964. It’s a chance for its players to compete in a Big Ten arena. That provides extra motivation.
Iowa uses nine underclassmen in its rotation. With the Big Ten grind concluded, the fast-paced Hawkeyes could look unshackled. It’s helped in the past. In Iowa’s five previous postseason debuts under McCaffery, the Hawkeyes are 4-1 with only a loss to Tennessee in overtime.
Bottom line, an NIT bid is only as good as how you use it. I’ve seen teams pack it in and others — like Iowa in 2013 — use it as a springboard to future success. The NIT is either a way to progress or a parting gift, and every program gets to make that choice.