Hawkeyes Pregame Hoops Huddle

Iowa has spent 15 weeks in the Top 10 of the Associated Press men’s basketball poll this season, the second-best showing in program history. Only the 1986-87 Elite Eight team spent more time there, never leaving the Top 10 all season. 

This is the eighth Hawkeye team to be ranked the entire season, and the first since 1995-96. Iowa is No. 8 in the latest poll, and never dropped lower than 15th. Which makes the program’s first visit to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament since 1999 a sure thing, right?

Well, not exactly.

It’s called March Madness for a reason. And that is the message Coach Fran McCaffery is sharing with his second-seeded team as they prepare to meet No. 15 Grand Canyon in a first-round NCAA game Saturday in Indianapolis, Ind. 

“What they have to do is be respectful of any team that makes this tournament,” McCaffery said. “This isn’t a lottery. You have to earn it. And you’re going to have to face an incredibly motivated, talented and well-coached team. And anything short of our best effort and we’ll have a hard time winning. We’ve seen that repeatedly. Everyone talks about upsets. I firmly believe there’s no such thing as an upset in this tournament. You’ve got to be prepared to compete and play your very best in order to advance. And that’s what we’re going to do.” McCaffery’s 11th and best Iowa team is 21-8. The No. 2 seed is the program’s highest in 34 years. A 20-game Big Ten schedule, followed by a postseason tournament that saw a pair of NCAA No.1 seeds playing a pair of No. 2 seeds in the semifinals, should pay dividends starting Saturday. 

“We’ve played against the best of the best throughout the entire year,” said center Luka Garza, named a unanimous first-team pick on the Associated Press all-America team for a second straight season on Tuesday. “We’re excited about this opportunity. We know the Big Ten has prepared us well. And we’re excited to play a team that’s not in the Big Ten.” A record nine Big Ten teams made this year’s 68-team field. Four of Iowa’s eight losses have come to No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Michigan and Illinois. 

After releasing the brackets Sunday, the NCAA also put out how it seeded the entire field. Seven Big Ten teams landed among the first 14. Illinois was third, Michigan fourth, Ohio State sixth, Iowa seventh and Purdue 14th. Iowa had a 2-4 record against the Top 15, and was 5-4 against the Top 35. 

Grand Canyon was 59th on that list. With a victory, the Hawkeyes would play either No. 25 Oregon or No. 39 VCU. 

But it’s a trap to fall for numbers come tournament time. If it wasn’t, it would be much easier to fill out your NCAA bracket. Oregon is a perfect example of the peril that awaits. The Ducks have a third-team all-American in Chris Duarte. And Coach Dana Altman always has a few tricks up his sleeve. He’s 13-6 in NCAA play and he’s taken a pair of teams seeded 12th to the Sweet 16. 

One of Altman NCAA losses came to Iowa when he was the coach at Creighton. That 2001 team, led by Kyle Korver, fell to the Hawkeyes in a first-round game at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. N.Y., 69-56. Altman also took Oregon to the Final Four as a No. 3 seed in 2017. McCaffery has taken four different programs to the tournament, and he’s experienced it from 

both ends of the seeding spectrum.He has a 5-9 record in NCAA play. Six of those nine losses have come to No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. 

His first two NCAA teams, at Lehigh in 1988 and North Carolina-Greensboro in 2001, were No. 16 seeds.

His first NCAA coaching victory came in 2008, when his 13th-seeded Siena team beat No. 4 Vanderbilt in a first-round contest, 83-62. The following year, ninth-seeded Siena beat No. 8 Ohio State in overtime in a first-round thriller, 74-72, then took No. 1 Louisville to the wire before losing, 79-72. 

Iowa was a No. 10 seed when it rallied to beat Cincinnati in a first-round game in 2019, 79-72, then took No. 2 Tennessee to overtime before falling, 83-77. 

Now the seeding shoe is on the other foot. 

“Every team I’ve taken to the NCAA Tournament was a really good team with terrific players,” McCaffery said. “And that’s the message to our guys. They are very aware of who is in our league and who the great players are. They are not as aware of some of the other conferences.”