After a roller coaster win at Illinois on Saturday the Iowa basketball team is now faced with perhaps its most important week of the season yet.
The Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten) currently sits third in the Big Ten standings, but strangely find themselves in a relative “no man’s land” when compared to the teams above and below them. Iowa has a two game cushion in the loss column over six teams each with five conference defeats. However, coach Fran McCaffery’s squad is also two back of leaders Michigan and Michigan State, whom the Hawkeyes have lost to already.
If Iowa wants to make any sort of push towards a conference title it cannot afford to lose anymore ground to the Wolverines and Spartans. That’s what makes this week’s slate of games so crucial.
Tomorrow night the Hawkeyes will take on an Ohio State team coming off of an impressive road win at Wisconsin. Then on Saturday Michigan makes its return trip to Iowa City.
These games are huge in the fact that Iowa can both keep the Buckeyes at bay and narrow the gap against a Michigan squad that suffered its first conference loss Sunday at Indiana. It also gives the Hawkeyes a chance to take on two more ranked opponents on their home floor in what would further boost a solid NCAA Tournament résumé.
Iowa needs to decide whether it’s satisfied with an upper echelon finish in the Big Ten, or would rather stake a claim as a team to be reckoned with as conference play comes to a close and postseason tournaments await on the horizon.
The Hawkeyes have the ability to make a run in March, but it all starts with building the necessary habits in the regular season to succeed as the games steadily increase in importance. Michigan and Ohio State both present Iowa with the opportunity to test its mettle.
This week’s contests also hold significance for Iowa as far as seeding in both the NCAA Tournament and the weekly top 25 polls.
After carnage ensued this week throughout the top 25 it’s likely the Hawkeyes will remain relatively static in the polls released tomorrow despite going 1-1. I’d expect them to fall somewhere in the upper teens, but not much lower than 20th.
Iowa was as high as 10th just two weeks ago, so putting a stop to the gradual slide would be a positive. Consecutive match-ups with top 25 opponents certainly presents a chance to do just that.
Winning both of these games would almost certainly vault the Hawkeyes back inside the top 15, and potentially even higher. As we’ve all seen, especially in recent weeks, there has been no shortage of ranked teams to fall during conference play.
Finally as I mentioned earlier Iowa is also continuing to jockey for seeding in the glorious bonanza that is March Madness. Most “Bracketologists” currently have the Hawkeyes slated somewhere in the 3-6 range, but the week ahead would definitely promote a jump to the upper end of that spectrum should they win both games.
If Iowa can make it through this week unscathed it will say a lot about the intestinal fortitude of this team.
Beating ranked opponents is never easy, especially in the Big Ten. Not to mention have you seen how absolutely nuts games have been in this conference lately???
The fans will be ready. It’s time to see if the Hawkeyes are ready to take yet another big step forward.