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Hawkeyes' Indy mission admirable, but out of reach for men's hoops

BY JORDAN GARRETSON | MARCH 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Hawkeyes are still talking about the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa's slim hopes for an at-large bid evaporated with a Feb. 26 loss at Illinois. But players spoke of a different route into the Field of 68 following Sunday's 70-66 defeat to Northwestern. The route runs through Indianapolis and requires four wins in four days beginning Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament.

"We have it in us," freshman Aaron White said. " … [If] we get hot, who knows what we could do."

But it's hard to believe these Hawkeyes really do have it in them.

Iowa should be happy with its season. Sixteen wins — including eight in the Big Ten and four against ranked teams — are a lot considering the program's recent struggles. But the team simply doesn't possess the parts to cut down the nets in Banker's Life Field House on March 11.

That's not an indictment of their will to win — it's a matter of reality. Iowa hasn't won four games in a row all season, let alone in four days. Their only two three-game winning streaks came against Chicago State, North Carolina A&T, and Northern Illinois and Drake, Central Arkansas, and Boise State.

Not exactly Big Ten competition.

The conference is the country's deepest and best. Top seed Michigan State awaits the winner of Thursday's Iowa-Illinois tilt, providing the toughest of quarterfinal roadblocks. The Hawkeyes are fresh off allowing 14 offensive rebounds to Northwestern, the league's worst rebounding team. Try to envision a scenario in which they knock off the Spartans, who happen to be the conference's best glass-cleaning unit.

But Iowa must reach Friday before it can even assume that challenge. To do so, the Hawkeyes must beat Illinois — about as scary of a No. 9 seed imaginable. The Illini sputtered in conference play but only after an 11-2 start to the season, which included a win over Gonzaga and a 4-point loss to Missouri. Don't forget they toppled Michigan State and Ohio State in conference play, too. And Iowa might want to check if 7-0 incoming freshman Adam Woodbury can enroll early considering the way Illinois' 7-1 Meyers Leonard dominated inside in the teams' first meeting.

If anything, Iowa does have a little bit of history on its side.

"I've said all along, this program has showed in the past that it's doable," senior guard Matt Gatens said. "That's what we're going to try to do."

The 2001 Hawkeyes — which won four games in four days as the conference's No. 6 seed — remain the only team in the tournament's history to take the title without the aid of a first-round bye. But that was also a group that boasted a formidable inside-outside duo in honorable mention All-American Reggie Evans and Luke Recker, as well as a third-team All-Big Ten point guard in Dean Oliver. Evans, the nation's leading rebounder, gave the Hawkeyes an interior force absent from this season's bunch.

For this Iowa team to do the same would be a hell of an accomplishment, but it's also about 10 times as farfetched.

And that's OK.

Gatens, with his career winding down, gave a previously embarrassed Iowa fan base reason to roar again in Carver-Hawkeye Arena with historic performances against Wisconsin and Indiana.

Talented youngsters gave those same fans promise for the future — four of the Hawkeyes' top five scorers are underclassmen. And Fran McCaffery, in only his second season, added to that promise by securing a recruiting class ranked as the nation's 20th-best by ESPN.com.

A pre-weekend exit from the Big Ten Tournament appears imminent. Iowa still may squeak out a trip to the College Basketball Invitational.

But Hawkeye fans should keep their dancing shoes handy for next March. The Madness looks to be within reach again — finally.

Follow DI men's basketball reporter Jordan Garretson on Twitter.


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