CHICAGO - If Iowa misses out no the NCAA Tournament this season, it only will have itself to blame. Another opportunity awaits it after it missed on several earlier in the season.
The Hawkeyes take on No. 8 Michigan State today after dispatching of Northwestern, 73-59, Thursday night here at the United Center. The Big Ten Tournament victory completed a three-game sweep of the Wildcats this season.
"We've had a couple of opportunities this year that we haven't capitalized on," Iowa Center Adam Woodbury said. "We've been right there with everybody we've played. We have a chance to win this tournament. I don't think anybody is counting us out and I know we're not counting ourselves out."
Roy Devyn Marble paced Iowa (21-11) with 19 points while Mike Gesell added 13 in his return from a foot injury that cost him the last four games of the regular season. Melsahn Basabe grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, swatted five shots and added 10 points for the winners.
Hawkeyes Coach Fran McCaffery probably would have liked his team to dispatch of the Wildcats a little more comfortably to get players rest for Michigan State. While he employed 10 guys in the game, Marble and Aaron White (nine points, four rebounds) played 33 minutes each.
Iowa came here needing to boost its NCAA Tournament resume. The victory against the Wildcats represented the first step in doing that but it likely left some work to do, namely a win against Michigan State.
"They're one of the marquee programs in college basketball," McCaffery said. "It's a great venue. It's a great stage. It's an opportunity to put another win on our resume against a Top 8 team."
The Hawkeyes brought an RPI (77) and Strength of Schedule (102) here that, historically, would make it tough to receive an at-large bid. The Northwestern win did little to change that.
"It's a big game," Marble said of Michigan State. "We know what's at stake."
The Spartans knocked off Iowa, 62-59, Jan. 10 in Iowa City. Marble missed that game with a foot injury.
"It's a great opportunity for us," Iowa Senior Eric May said. "We played well against them the first time but it wasn't enough. Obviously we have to step it up a notch."
Thursday's game started out like it was going to be a breeze for the Hawkeyes (21-11). They held Northwestern scoreless for the first seven and a half minutes of it and led by as much as 18 before settling for a 36-22 halftime advantage.
While outmanned, the Wildcats (13-19) fought hard in what might have been the last game for their coach of 13 years, Bill Carmody. The team never has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa scored the first two baskets after halftime to go up by 18. Carmody burned his last timeout less than a minute into the second half. He must have gotten his team's attention.
Northwestern trimmed the Iowa seven points once and eight points on two other occasions. The Hawkeyes, who had been struggling with their shot all night, found the range on each occasion. Marble hit a pair of threes and Gesell and May each sank one of them to keep the lead safe. The winners then hit enough free throws in the final few minutes to put it away.
"That's kind of Northwestern's M.O.," Woodbury said. "They never quit no matter how much they're down. They play tough. That's what they do."
"We have the personnel, we have the firepower to beat them," Basabe said. "We pretty much know what they do. We respect them but we don't fear them.
"These games come down to how hard you're going to play and how much you want it, really, and limiting mistakes."