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Commentary: Hawkeye men's basketball Dance dreams aren't dead yet

BY TORK MASON | FEBRUARY 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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Somehow, the Iowa men’s basketball team has done it again. Left for dead after numerous heartbreaking losses that had them limping along at 3-7 in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes have since rattled off their first three-game conference winning streak since 2007. And Black and Gold fans are hopping back on the NCAA Tournament bandwagon once again.

Those fans might just have it right this time.

The Hawkeyes have several factors working in their favor as they prepare for the final five regular-season games: a favorable schedule, selection history, and the Big Ten’s national reputation.

Look at Iowa’s last five games. You’ll find two games against Nebraska — currently 11th in the Big Ten at 3-9, home games against Purdue — a team the Hawkeyes held a lead over in the final minute of what turned out to be a road loss on Jan. 27 — Illinois, and a road contest at No. 1 Indiana.

Only the trip to Assembly Hall on March 2 is a game that can be chalked up as a loss. The other four games are all winnable for Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery’s squad.

They’re all games the Hawkeyes could lose, too. Nebraska has given several of the conference’s top teams a run for their money, Illinois can beat anyone in the nation when it gets hot from behind the arc, and Purdue has already beaten Iowa.

But Devyn Marble appears to be clear of his monthlong slump after averaging just under 20 points per game in the Hawkeyes’ recent winning streak. Several other Hawkeyes shot 50 percent or better from the floor last week, and the offense found a more consistent rhythm. If that continues, Iowa will be tough to beat, especially in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Say Iowa finishes the regular season 4-1. That would give the Hawkeyes a 10-8 Big Ten record, their first 10-win conference season since 2005-06. It would also make them a virtual lock to reach the Big Dance.

Since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Big Ten teams that won at least 10 games in conference play have been left out of March Madness just seven times. And none of those omissions came in years when the conference was as strong as it is now.

The Big Ten boasts eight teams — including Iowa — in the top 30 of the KenPom ratings, a well-respected ratings system for college basketball. No other conference has more than six teams in the top 30. That kind of depth will show itself on Selection Sunday; the Big Ten is expected to get six to seven bids and possibly as many as eight. That bodes well for Iowa.

Even if the Hawkeyes only reach 9-9 in conference play, a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament could be enough to secure a bid. And as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, they would get a favorable first round matchup.

McCaffery has said on numerous occasions that he doesn’t want his team to focus on the big picture, he wants the players to focus on winning the next game. That’s a healthy attitude, especially because the majority of Iowa’s remaining games are must-wins.

But the possibility is out there, and it’s well within reach — unthinkable just two weeks ago.


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