IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa coach Fran McCaffery spoke 2,180 words during his Big Ten Tournament preview press conference. Not once did he utter the phrase NCAA Tournament.
He’s doing something similar with his team.
“Everybody knows where we sit and what opportunities are out there for this team,” said McCaffery on Tuesday afternoon.
Good. Because the stakes are known, too. Iowa is playing for an NCAA Tournament or NIT berth in the Big Ten Tournament this week. The Hawkeyes are likely two wins from at-large berth and they need to secure it because it’s best for the long-term development of the program.
Yes, a month ago the NIT would have seemed like an exclamation point on the season, but not anymore, not after four straight wins and two road victories over Top 25 teams.
The stretch run put Iowa in this unexpected spot and changed the end-of-season calculus. This is already going down as a successful season. The question is to what degree.
The NCAA Tournament is a different beast than anything Iowa faced this season. It’s like how Big Ten play is different from beating Savannah State by 32 points.
Freshmen dreamed of playing in the tournament for years. Nerves can pop up even for the most cold-blooded players. The ruthless one-and- done nature of the tournament can cause others to press or freeze.
It’s the biggest stage in the sport. The hoops are still 10 feet high, but it’s a different atmosphere. Iowa is as young as the cast of a Disney Junior sitcom. The freshmen need to see what the tournament is all about so they can do what they’ve done all season.
Learn from it.
The NCAA Tournament would be an unexpected bonus for Jordan Bohannon, Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl before they take on larger roles next season. They know what they would be getting into when expectations rise, for both them and the team, going forward.
Winning an NIT title is nice and any exposure to the postseason is a benefit, but it can’t simulate the NCAA feeling. It’s the most important experience the Hawkeyes can gain this month. A one-and-done NCAA trip would beat a deep run in the NIT and the extra practices that come with it.
The Hawkeyes are peaking at the right time of the season. They figured out who they are. They don’t need additional time to fine-tune things. The best option would be to see what they could do against the best in the country.
Those squads will be in the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes already consider themselves one of them.
All that’s left is securing a spot in the field, starting with the second-round Big Ten Tournament matchup against Indiana on Thursday (5:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2).
“I feel like the way we played these last four games we are a top team in the country,” forward Nicholas Baer said. “… we also have some work to do at the Big Ten Tournament. No one is going to give us anything. We have to go earn it.”
Two wins will likely do it, but Peter Jok won’t settle there.
“We are trying to win it all,” Jok said.
Claiming the league’s automatic bid would be one way to get in and likely would get McCaffery to name the tournament he isn’t saying.