Iowa basketball: Big Ten title hopes aren’t dead just yet

If you’d asked an Iowa basketball fan just a few days ago for their thoughts on a possible regular season Big Ten title for the Hawkeyes laughter might have ensued. Iowa was coming off of a second consecutive devastating home loss, this time to Ohio State, and found itself three games back of conference leaders Michigan and Michigan State in the conference race.

Not only did Iowa (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten) have plenty of ground to make up with only eight games to play, but both the Wolverines and Spartans already owned tie-breaking wins over the Hawkeyes. Things were looking pretty bleak to say the least.

Fast forward to this blustery Monday in Iowa City and a few signs of life have emerged among the Iowa faithful.

On Saturday the 16th ranked Hawkeyes utterly dismantled Michigan and its star guard Nik Stauskas at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In what might have been Iowa’s most impressive performance of the entire season, Devyn Marble got his team out of the gate with six, count ‘em SIX first half 3-pointers, and Iowa never looked back on its way to an 85-67 win that really wasn’t that close.

Then on Sunday, Iowa was the beneficiary of the continued plight has been Michigan State (more appropriately known as the “walking wounded” of the Big Ten). The Spartans made the trek to Madison to take on a Wisconsin team desperate for a marquee victory, and the Badgers took advantage of the opportunity with a Traevon Jackson go-ahead jumper in the game’s closing seconds. Thus Tom Izzo’s squad became the second Michigan university to suffer a loss on the weekend.

Both of these circumstances had a profound effect on an Iowa team that had been slowly slipping out of touch with the Big Ten leaders. The Hawkeyes were able to personally even the score with Michigan, effectively eliminating any late season tie-breaker that might pop up between the two teams. The later loss by Michigan State required far less effort on Iowa’s part, obviously, yet it was nonetheless equally helpful.

Not since the 1978-79 season under the leadership of later legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson has Iowa won a Big Ten regular season title. (Photo March 3, 1979)

Not since the 1978-79 season under the leadership of later legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson (right) has Iowa won a Big Ten regular season title. (Photo March 3, 1979)

While anything is certainly possible on any given night in the rugged Big Ten, I’ve come to the conclusion that in all likelihood Iowa would need to go undefeated over its final seven conference games in order to grab some portion of the regular season title (hey I never said this whole championship thing was highly probable).

The Hawkeyes still sit in a difficult position being two games back of first place, and their remaining schedule isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Iowa’s toughest remaining tests come in the form of road trips to Indiana and Minnesota, sandwiched around a home date with no. 21 Wisconsin. Oh yeah, and then there’s the issue of March 6th visit to East Lansing to take on Michigan State in prime time.

If Iowa merely took care of business the rest of the way it would still be a game back of the Spartans and two behind Michigan. That’s where help is needed.

Michigan State’s toughest remaining contests (excluding Iowa) are at no. 15 Michigan on February 23rd and at no. 22 Ohio State in the season finale, three days after taking on the Hawkeyes. If the Spartans fell in either or both of these games Iowa could potentially tie or pass them.

In regards to Michigan, things should become pretty clear within the next two weeks as to whether or not the Hawkeyes can supplant the first place Wolverines.

Michigan’s next three games, in order, are at Ohio State, home against Wisconsin, and home against Michigan State. Ideally the Wolverines would lose to both the Buckeyes and Badgers, but triumph in the rivalry game against the Spartans. That being said, any combination of two loses would do.

If any sort of these combinations were to work out, we would likely see Iowa tied for, or in sole possession of first place with a record of 14-4 to close Big Ten play. Once again, all of this is contingent on the Hawkeyes winning out, which is by no means a sure thing.

Heck, for all we know Iowa could win its final seven games, finish 14-4, and still not get any piece of the regular season title. What I’m basically saying to Hawkeye fans is don’t hold your breath anticipating a regular season championship, but don’t completely dismiss the possibility either.

Makes sense right?