Howe: Big Dance a Watershed Moment for Hawkeye Program

March 18, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

Iowa Faces Cincinnati in NCAA Tournament

Fran McCaffery Selection Sunday Press Conference

Iowa Players Selection Sunday Interviews

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The revealing of the NCAA Tournament brackets Sunday brought joy here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. For the first time in three years, Iowa heard its named called.

Celebrating was warranted. These guys worked hard to get here. And for all but fifth-year senior Nicholas Baer, they were invited for the first time.

Dreaming about playing college basketball and being in the Big Dance go hand in hand. They’ll be living something they’ve envisioned countless times waiting for their one shining moment.

They see it as opportunity. They’re excited to face Cincinnati in the first round with the possibility of seeing Tennessee in the next game. Most outsiders believe their season ends the first weekend. They’re confident they’ll win it all.

Why not? Cinderella lives in March.

A deep Hawkeye run would do wonders for a program in need of positive momentum. A quick exit sets up another offseason of unrest.

Iowa lost a chance at heading into this event on a high. Michigan pounded it by 21 points in Friday’s quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. It lost for the fifth time in six games, feeding the narrative that coach Fran McCaffery’s teams fade late in the season.

This program is reaching a crossroads under McCaffery. After nine seasons, wondering if it’s maxed out under his guidance is warranted.

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McCaffery has earned earned his keep. He took over a dumpster fire lit by his predecessor, Todd Lickliter, and built a respectable outfit.

It’s now reached the NCAA Tournament four out of the last six years. During that time, it’s compiled a 57-53 Big Ten mark and finished 6th or better in the final standings on four occasions. It’s won two NCAA Tournament games, getting blown out by high seeds in Round 2 both times.

So, is that it? Is that the ceiling?

If the Hawkeyes go one- or two-and-done this week, it further cements that narrative. It matches the one built by Tom Davis, the all-time winningest coach here.

He advanced to the NCAA Tournament nine times in 13 years, reaching at least the Sweet 16 three times. That wasn’t enough for former athletics director Bob Bowlsby or, if we’re being honest, the majority of fans. People have become more nostalgic about Davis over time because the bar he set has not been reached.

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Some fans grew tired of Davis. They believed a 13-year sample size revealed his capabilities. There was no public outcry when his contract expired and he moved on.

The landscape has changed since then. Administrators and fans have become even less patient. That’s why we’ve arrived at an important stage in McCaffery’s time here.

He’s the fourth-most tenured coach in the conference behind only Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Purdue’s Matt Painter and Michigan’s John Beilein. He’s the only one among them not to reach at least the Sweet 16 during the last five seasons.

It’s fair to point out that Iowa doesn’t enjoy the history of that trio. Expecting and wanting more also is acceptable.

To date, McCaffery hasn’t overstayed his welcome. He’s run a clean program and recruited high-character kids. Despite the outcry from the disgruntled, he shouldn’t have been shown the door already.

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That said, it’s time to raise the bar. Winning the program’s first regular-season title since 1979 would be great, but breaking its 20-year Sweet 16 drought needs to happen.

Iowa gets another chance this week. The eyes of the black and gold faithful will be watching, hoping, yearning for something to celebrate.

Being let down again will raise apathy. McCaffery’s leash shortens. The good-will tank moves closer to empty.

For reasonable people, it’s not personal. Most coaches are hired to be fired before reaching retirement. That time is determined by how they’re viewed.

Some of McCaffery’s detractors have been born from his wild sideline antics that have led to suspensions and embarrassed the program. Other folks are against him because of his tensions with beloved radio play-by-play voice Gary Dolphin.

In the end, those are sidebar stories. Winning at or above rational expectations achieves contentment and more.

It feels like judgement time for current leadership. We’re about to find out if the Hawkeyes head in the right or wrong direction.

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