The Rosster: Iowa basketball can be the team we thought it was

BY BEN ROSS | FEBRUARY 13, 2014 5:00 AM

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The situation was grim in Champaign, Ill., on Feb. 1.

Twelve minutes into its contest with Illinois, Iowa was up 21 points. Then the Illini started fighting. With nine minutes left in the game, Illinois had erased the deficit and was up 66-61. But the Hawkeyes hit the panic button, ended the game on a 7-0 run, and squeaked out with what should have been an easy victory.

Iowa had another sizable lead over then-No. 10 Michigan just a week after the Illinois contest. Michigan was up 2 points early, just a minute and a half into the game. Then Devyn Marble buried a 3, and Iowa never checked the rear-view mirror. The Hawkeyes ended the game with an 18-point victory, but it wasn’t even that close. The nearest Michigan ever got to Iowa again was within 6 points, but the Black and Gold kept on hitting their shots and muzzled any bark that the Wolverines attempted to muster.

Iowa didn’t give up a late lead against Michigan. It hit its free throws. It secured a signature win over the first-place team in the best college basketball conference in the world. People, this is what the Iowa men’s basketball team is capable of. The Hawkeyes can be who we thought they were.

But they have a long way to go. The squad still needs to master the art of playing clutch, and Michigan was the first time we saw Iowa control the entire game once it secured a lead. The Black and Gold likely won’t be able to rely on shooting 60 percent from 3-point range as it did against the Wolverines, and polishing up some of its easier-to-control variables is where really noticeable improvement will begin.

If the Big Ten regular season ended today, Iowa would finish third in the conference and earn a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament.  There are just two games against ranked foes left on the schedule — at Michigan State on March 6 and versus Wisconsin on Feb. 22 — so finishing third overall in the regular-season standings or even higher is certainly not out of the question. How it fares in the actual tournament is big, too. Those games will greatly influence how Iowa is seeded for what will be its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2006.

What happens between now and then is even more important, though. All seven of Iowa’s remaining games are more than winnable, especially the contest at Michigan State. It has the luxury of picking up two more résumé-building wins over the Spartans and Wisconsin. What Iowa doesn’t have the luxury of doing is dropping games to lesser teams in a frustrating manner (see: each of Iowa’s losses this year. Except at Michigan. Maybe).

The table is set. Half of a conference season is knocking on Iowa’s door. But Iowa shouldn’t be the type of team that answers.

It should be the kind of team that knocks.

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