IOWA CITY, Iowa — Twice in the last five seasons, Iowa men’s basketball has knocked on the door of NCAA prominence, taken a step inside the conversation and then tripped on the doorstep.
In 2013-14, the Hawkeyes soared to No. 10 in the rankings and were within a game of the Big Ten lead in late February. Then they dropped seven of their final eight and barely made the NCAA Tournament.
Two seasons ago, Iowa twice dusted top-5 Michigan State — including once when the Spartans were the nation’s top-ranked squad — by a combined 30 points within a three-week period. The Hawkeyes reached No. 3 nationally, led the Big Ten with a 10-1 record and then fizzled to a 12-6 league finish. Eventual national champion Villanova beat Iowa in the NCAA’s second round.
There were other years where the regular-season endings elevated the program. The 2014-15 group won its final six regular-season games, crushed Davidson 83-52 in the NCAA Tournament opener, then fell to Gonzaga in the next round. Even last season, an Iowa team that was one of the last four squads left out of the NCAA Tournament, won its last four regular-season games.
But there’s a commonality with the program — that it’s good but not quite great. For four straight seasons, an Iowa player has been named first-team All-Big Ten. The last five seasons, only Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State have won at least half their Big Ten games in every season.
But the Badgers have a championship appearance, a Final Four berth and two more Sweet 16s. The Spartans have three Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and a Final Four. Iowa has a couple of NCAA wins and a painful overtime First Four exit in 2014.
Don’t get me wrong. Iowa put together some good teams, won some big regular-season games and sits in a rose garden compared with the sewage plant coach Fran McCaffery inherited back in 2010. But anniversaries aren’t scheduled at Iowa for teams that finish third in the Big Ten and advance to the round of 32.
McCaffery knows that. So do his pupils. Monday at media day, Iowa’s brash youngsters talked big. Yeah, there’s a little swagger to them as with all basketball players. But there’s a difference between talking and believing. These guys beat Big Ten champion Purdue and stopped runners-up Maryland and Wisconsin on the road last season. They act like it’s their league this year. And you know what? Bravo.
“We weren’t satisfied with going to the NIT last year and we were as close as you could be to making the NCAA Tournament,” said sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl, who lost around 20 pounds this offseason. “Our goal this year isn’t to be one of the bubble teams; we want to be in the tournament. I think if we’re playing as much as a team as we are these past couple of weeks, then I don’t see how we couldn’t be there.
“We know where we belong. It kind of makes you want to show everyone where they’re wrong.”
Iowa was 10-8 in Big Ten play last season but lost league scoring champion Peter Jok. But that’s it. The Hawkeyes return 76.7 percent of their scoring and 85.7 percent of their minutes. Four different freshmen started at least 14 games last season, and the six freshmen who played scored 49 percent of Iowa’s points.
The freshmen last season were green but gritty. Point guard Jordan Bohannon was one of only two freshmen nationally the last 25 years to record more than 175 assists and 85 3-pointers. Bohannon (10.9 points per game) and forward Tyler Cook (12.3) were named to the Big Ten’s all-freshman team. Bohannon hit an Iowa freshman record 8 3-pointers at Maryland and recorded 162 assists.
Pemsl averaged 8.9 points and led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (.617), and wing Isaiah Moss (6.5) opened 28 games, also as a freshman. Pemsl scored in double figures 15 times, and last year’s freshmen grabbed 40 percent of the rebounds.
The newcomers also brought an undeniable aura. This team is unified like no other club in recent memory. They’re friendly, energetic and competitive. They’re close off the court and even closer on it. The Final Four is on their minds, and Bohannon was not afraid to talk about it immediately after the season.
Jok won the 3-point contest at the Final Four in April, and a fan posted on Twitter: “Prediction right now. @JordanBo_3 wins Three Point Shootout his Senior year. You heard it hear [sic] first.”
Bohannon thought about it, then subtweeted the fan with “We’ll be in the final four…”
“I just got off the phone with my brothers, and we were actually talking about the upcoming season and what I need to work on going forward and saw this tweet,” Bohannon said. “And I’m like, I’m honored by this but looking at the dates and I’m like we should be in the Final Four by this time. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have those expectations.
“All of us have that mindset going forward, that we want to get to the Final Four, we want to win a Big Ten title, we want to try to win a national title. Looking at the guys around here, we’re all capable of doing that. Hopefully we keep having that mindset going forward and hopefully we keep working every day.”
There are plenty of factors that need to go Iowa’s way to have any chance. The players bring up defense, consistency and a persistent mental edge as a requirement. Those waned last year. Luck also is a factor. The 2015-16 squad still led the Big Ten with an 11-2 record but lost a grueling game at Penn State. That knocked the Hawkeyes off course and into a four-game slide.
McCaffery identified several necessary factors to vault Iowa into the upper echelon. His better teams had that edge at times, but waned in the wrong moments.
“You’ve got to win close games,” McCaffery said. “You’ve got to stay healthy. You need good, solid guard play. You’ve got to defend well on a consistent basis. You’ve got to share the ball. You’ve got to make 3s. But at the end of the day, it really comes down to consistently performing at a high level.
“Ultimately you’ve got to make plays at crunch time. You’ve got to get stops in crunch time. Hopefully that’s what this team will figure out.”
With a bona fide NBA talent in Cook and a nucleus of multiple upper-tier Big Ten players, this Iowa team could have that chance to have a special banner hanging at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. McCaffery’s other squads had that potential, too. This one believes it can happen.
You know what? I do, too.
But believing it is different from doing it. If the Hawkeyes knock on the door of basketball prominence this year, don’t trip walking in. Knock the damn thing down.