IOWA CITY, Iowa — In a season in which Iowa expected to challenge for an NCAA Tournament spot, the Hawkeyes instead approach several historic marks that the proud men’s basketball program would prefer to avoid.
It is one thing to stumble and have a bad season. It is quite another to stamp a scarlet letter upon a team’s postseason obituary. That is where this season lies with Iowa basketball.
The Hawkeyes (12-18 overall, 3-14 Big Ten) sit tied with Rutgers and Illinois for last place in the Big Ten. Only once since 1939 has Iowa finished last in league play, and that was in 1993-94 when it was 5-13 under coach Tom Davis. The program rebounded the following season to win 21 games and qualify for the NIT.
If the Hawkeyes drop the home finale against Northwestern, Iowa will have won only three games in league play for the first time since the 1963-64 season.
Iowa will play in the Big Ten Tournament’s opening round on Wednesday in New York. If the Hawkeyes lose that game, it will mark the first time since 1938 the team will not compete in a men’s basketball game in March. The inaugural NCAA Tournament was in 1939.
Statistics generally provide reasons for success or failure, and this season is no different. In all nine Big Ten road games, Iowa trailed by at least 18 points at some juncture in the game. Only a 20-point rally in an overtime victory at Illinois prevented the team’s first winless Big Ten road campaign since 2008-09. Iowa didn’t even play two of the Big Ten’s top-5 teams on the road this season.
On defense, Iowa ranks 308th nationally, allowing 78.8 points per game. Among Power 5 teams, only Oklahoma has given up more points per game. Iowa’s numbers are the worst among Big Ten teams by 3.7 points per contest. Last season, the Hawkeyes ranked 291st in points allowed at 78.1.
This season in Big Ten play, Iowa has given up 83.8 points per game, which is the second most for any team since 1995. Minnesota is the second worst this season in points allowed at 78.5 points per game. This is the fourth time in the last eight years that Iowa will rank last in scoring defense in Big Ten action. Last season, the Hawkeyes were 2 points from sharing the bottom with Indiana.
Are the ugly statistics an aberration or the new norm? In the previous five seasons, Iowa was one of only three Big Ten teams ― Wisconsin and Michigan State the others ― to win at least half of its games every season. The Hawkeyes qualified for three NCAA Tournaments and barely missed two other times. They even won two NCAA games.
Two years ago, Iowa was ranked No. 3 nationally by The Associated Press, led the Big Ten at one point with an 11-1 mark and featured a second-team All-American in Jarrod Uthoff. In Big Ten action, the Hawkeyes paced the league in fewest turnovers that season with 178. That season seems like a generation ago.
This season, Iowa has the most turnovers in Big Ten play with 228. The 2016 squad gave up 69.3 points per game in Big Ten play, or 14.5 fewer points on average than the 2017-18 squad. That team stopped penetration, guarded perimeter shooters, protected the rim and didn’t allow easy baskets. That team took care of the basketball, usually ran a crisp motion offense and could get up and down the floor. This squad has difficulty in all of those areas except transition offense.
After most seasons like this at Power 5 schools, coaches are on the hot seat. Even at Iowa, Davis’ contract wasn’t renewed in 1999 after four consecutive 20-win seasons. But considering in November coach Fran McCaffery signed an extension through 2024 that jumped his buyout to $10.2 million after this season, his job is safe. After the 2018-19 season, the buyout slides to $9 million. Iowa’s athletics department has almost no financial leverage if it wanted to make a change, unless a few donors chip in to provide the buyout funds.
So, is this season a pothole or a sinkhole for McCaffery? It depends on offseason player attrition, whether the team makes any defensive strides and if it values the basketball next season. If no key players leave and those improvements are made, maybe Iowa moves past this rotten year like football coach Kirk Ferentz did with his 4-8 season in 2012. If not, count on Iowa’s fans turning the vitriol of today into the apathy of tomorrow.