Dienhart: Iowa eyes first Big Ten crown since 1979

B.J. Armstrong never did it. Neither did Acie Earl, Ed Horton, Les Jepsen, Dean Oliver, Reggie Evans, Ryan Bowen, Kevin Gamble or Andre Woolridge, among other former Iowa greats over the last 35 years. Not one of those studs won a Big Ten regular-season championship.

In fact, no Iowa player has won a Big Ten regular-season crown since 1978-79, when the Hawkeyes were tri-champs with Purdue and Michigan State. The 1979-80 Hawkeyes didn’t win the Big Ten but did advance to the Final Foul, fueled by the great Ronnie Lester. Since then, big-time success has been elusive.

Listen to coach Fran McCaffery’s weekly teleconference:

But this group of Hawkeyes may end that streak. And that didn’t seem very probably not long ago when Iowa lost home games to Michigan State and Ohio State.

Iowa took a big step in the direction of a championship over the weekend. The Hawkeyes dispatched Penn State, 82-70, to move to 8-4 in the Big Ten. It was Iowa’s second victory in a row and third in four games.

But Michigan and Michigan State provided the biggest boosts to Iowa by unexpectedly losing home games to Wisconsin and Nebraska, respectively, to continue the theme of what has been a wild and unpredictable Big Ten season.

“Every other league has bad teams,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We don’t have any bad teams. At the end of this thing, somebody is going to win this league. I don’t know who. You can’t bring your “B” game, no matter who you are in this league, and expect to win. In fact, you’re probably going to get embarrassed. That’s the challenge for all of us moving forward. Can we be mentally ready, and physically ready, and have the correct amount of toughness, especially on the road.”

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Now, as this week dawns and the finish line is coming into sight, Iowa is just one game behind the Wolverines and Spartans in the loss column.

The Hawkeyes are powered by a roster with unmatched depth that’s led by Roy Devyn Marble, who may be the leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Aaron White is the ultimate leader and jack-of-all-trades, while Gabe Olaseni has turned into one of the conference’s premier reserves.

If Iowa is going to win its first league regular-season title in 35 years, it will have earned it. Up next is a game at Indiana, a slumbering team whose season is circling the drain with three losses in a row and currently 10th in the Big Ten with a 4-8 mark. If IU ever was going to circle the wagons, now would be the time. An NIT bid may be fading from sight, a stupefying thought for a program that was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney last season.

Win in Bloomington, and the stakes vs. Wisconsin on Saturday in Iowa City are even bigger for the Hawkeyes. The Badgers are hot, having won four games in a row after a midseason slumber. A victory would keep Iowa in the championship chase. It also would give Iowa a split in the season series with Wisconsin, which would be big for tiebreaker purposes.

Triumphs vs. Indiana and Wisconsin would give Iowa at least a two-game edge over the Badgers for the third seed in the Big Ten Tournament. No doubt, it would be ideal to avoid the potential 4/5 game on Friday afternoon in league tourney this March.

But heavy lifting still looms for Iowa even with wins over IU and Wisconsin. There are games at Minnesota, vs. Purdue, at Michigan State and vs. Illinois to close the season.

Bottom line: The Hawkeyes may have to win-out to have a shot at that elusive Big Ten regular-season title. Since Iowa turned the trick in 1979, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Illinois all have won conference regular-season titles.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa won Big Ten tourney titles in 2001 and 2006. The run to the 2001 crown was the biggest surprises in Big Ten tourney annals, as the Hawkeyes were a No. 6 seed, the lowest-seeded team ever to win the event.

McCaffery continues to put his stamp on this program that never really has been the same since Dr. Tom Davis was fired after the 1998-99 season, his 13th with the school that featured nine NCAA bids. Steve Alford and Todd Lickliter came and went. Alford had some success; Lickliter was an epic disaster.

McCaffery arrived from Siena in 2010-11. And each season has gotten progressively better. McCaffery debuted 4-14 in the Big Ten; then went 8-10 with a second-round NIT exit and 9-9 last season as Iowa was the NIT runner-up. The Hawkeyes are poised to improve that. But Iowa wants more.

“Fran is not only one of the top coaches in our league, but frankly I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country because he does such a good job of going from game to game and doing whatever it takes to win that game,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “He puts a lot of things in the game plan that he can go to. At the same time they’ve got their constants, got their principles.”

The Hawkeyes haven’t been to the NCAA tourney since 2006, going one-and-done. Iowa went one-and-done in 2005, as well. The last time the program won an NCAA game was 2001, when the Hawkeyes topped Creighton before losing to Kentucky. The last Sweet 16 appearance? It was 1999, when Iowa beat UAB and Arkansas before falling to UConn.

“It reminds me when we watch them, and it’s been this way all year, a lot of what we had last year with our team,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “With the experience of scoring, shooting, guys who have been there, guys who have been in a lot of hard games. But also some young firepower that has brought some energy to the table.”

The next few weeks are going to be a lot of fun in Iowa City.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Show Comments (1 Comment)
1 Post Your Comment
gengberg on 2/17/2014 @ 8:56pm EDT Said:

I’ll bet a steak dinner Iowas doesn’t win the Big Ten!! Bet….

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