Iowa CITY, Iowa - The success of a college basketball program is determined by one clear criteria - reaching the NCAA Tournament and once there advancing deep it. Then, doing it again and again and again.
"I think that's the standard that everybody looks at," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "Your goal is to get in. Of course, it's then to advance once you're in there.
"But there's just so much emphasis now put on the NCAA tournament. Obviously, I was fortunate to have played in it, coached in it. I recognize it's an incredible experience."
Iowa's chances of reaching the Field of 68 took a huge blow on Saturday with a 64-60 loss at Nebraska. The Huskers, among the Big Ten bottom feeders, overcame a 16-point halftime deficit.
The Hawkeyes (17-10 overall, 6-8 conference) play host to Purdue on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. CT, BTN) with little to no margin for error. With an RPI sitting around 90 and a strength of schedule at about 110, they'll likely need wins in their four remaining regular-season contests, which includes a Saturday matchup at top-ranked Indiana.
Even with a 4-0 finish, it may take a few wins in the Big Ten Tournament to get off of the bubble. Another regular-season loss could mean a run to the tourney title game is necessary.
"When you're one of the teams that has an opportunity and you're in the conversation, it's great," McCaffery said. "You want to be one of the ones that gets in, not one of the ones that gets left out, and you want to do the things necessary to make that happen.
"We're a team that clearly has been very close in that respect. So when you fall short, you lose a game you had a chance to win, it makes you feel that much worse.
"But the question, I think, the challenge before this team, is where do we go from here. That's to be determined."
In addition to the Indiana schools, Iowa plays host to Illinois and Nebraska. It's the only meeting this season with the Illini, a team at 7-8 in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes could knock off Illinois and still not top it for an at-large berth in the Big Dance. The Illini owns a Top 10 strength of schedule and an RPI in the low 30s.
If you remove a blowout loss at Michigan, Iowa has lost its other seven conference games by an average of 4.3 points. Six of those contests were decided by four points or less, including a double-overtime setback at Wisconsin and an overtime defeat at Purdue.
Despite being in position to be clear of bubble talk, the Hawkeyes have come up empty at the end of most of their losses.
"We have to continue to stay aggressive (in the closing minutes)," Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. "We get a little bit tense thinking that we have to make the perfect play; get too afraid to make a mistake. You just have to go out there and play confidently like you know how to play."
It's easier said than done when it seems like every day some expert releases his NCAA Tournament projections. If you follow college basketball, which the players certainly do, pressure mounts as the season advances and you have work to do to get into the field.
"I have to admit, I never thought I'd see the day where the first week of January they're talking about the last four in and the first four out," McCaffery said. "It's incredible how senseless that is in January. But nonetheless, that's the world we live in.
"It's an example of the pressure that everyone feels and everyone puts on themselves to be one of those teams that get in."
It all leads up to Selection Sunday, when the brackets are released and everyone and their grandmother gets into a tournament pool. Fans are hungry to see their team in the dance. The Hawkeye faithful is starving.
Iowa last made the NCAA field in the 2005-06 season. The Hawkeyes have been there only three times 12 years.
"I don't know anything about it," junior Roy Devyn Marble said of where Iowa sits in the NCAA discussion right now. "All I can do is to continue to try to keep getting wins. Hopefully we are in a position.
"We're not really worried about it. We just have to keep getting wins."
That's the way Marble is wired. He's like the mule with blinders on. It will be a challenge to remain that way.
As we usher in March on Friday, the madness just picks up momentum. "Bracketologists", the name given to these folks who stay up at night reworking their projected fields, start updating things after every game ends, it seems. There may not be an escape for Marble or any other Hawkeye trying to avoid the pressure of knowing their backs are against the wall.
The angst builds for Iowa fans, who watched their team reach the NCAAs 16 times from 1979-99. It's not the type of madness they enjoy.