CHICAGO - The next few days could feel like an eternity for the Iowa men's basketball team. While most prognostications show the Hawkeyes as an NIT team, players and coaches will hang onto hope that they'll hear their name Sunday night when the NCAA Tournament field is announced.
In a season of missed opportunities, Iowa let another chance to impress the selection committee slip away here Friday night. Eighth-ranked Michigan State overcame the Hawkeyes, 59-56, in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center. They were eliminated from the event with one win against the top five teams in the conference during the 2012-13 campaign.
"You can't (think about what-ifs) because you'd make yourself," Iowa Sophomore Aaron White said. "If you played the what-if game and we came out on top in six or seven (of the close losses), we'd be a Top 15 team. But you can't play the what-if game because they didn't happen. That's the transition for this team from a middle-of-the-road team to an elite program in this league."
Iowa entered Friday's action lugging behind it a 71 RPI and a 106 Strength of Schedule (SOS), according to CBSSport.com. Those numbers did not stack up well against schools that have received at-large bids to the Big Dance in years past.
A win against MSU (25-7) likely would have pushed the Hawkeyes' RPI into the 60s, perhaps the 50s. It also could have boosted their lagging SOS to an at-least acceptable level. They also would have headed to the league tourney semifinals having won 8 of 10 games.
Instead, Iowa owns a 21-12 overall record and a 10-10 mark in the Big Ten. Of those 10 conference wins (regular season plus tourney), seven came against Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue, the bottom four schools in the league. The other three victories were versus Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois - teams likely to make the NCAAs - but occured at home.
"This happened to us a few other times during the season and we thought that we'd be ready for it," Iowa Point Guard Mike Gesell said. "It happened to us again. We weren't able to pull it out."
If you're making a case for Iowa's inclusion in the NCAAs, you can point to several close loses in the country's best conference. The Hawkeyes dropped two games to No. 1-seed Indiana by a total of nine points. They fell against Michigan State by three, at No. 2-seeded Ohio State by nine, at No. 4 Wisconsin by four in double overtime and by three at Minnesota.
"You've got to live and you've got to learn," Iowa Junior Devyn Marble said. "Until we get sick of this feeling, it's going to continue to happen."
While it's hard to pinpoint the exact criteria used by the committee in selecting at-large teams, it's asking a lot of it to comb through every team in the country to analyze close defeats. The might-have-been outcomes are the ones that stick in the minds of the Hawkeyes and their fans. After missing the NCAA Tournament for the last six seasons, they're hoping the powers that be view every speck of merit.
Iowa's last impression for the committee's consideration turned out to be another difficult loss to the Spartans Friday. Like so many other times this season, the Hawkeyes put themselves in position to win only to see it slip away at the end. They led for the first 36 minutes of the game, including a 12-point advantage with just more than 10 minutes to play.
Michigan State turned up its defense and the Hawkeyes became tentative on offense from that point. The Spartans took off on a 24-4 run to take an eight-point lead with 2:21 on the clock.
Iowa responded with a 7-0 run of its own to make it 57-56 Spartans with 1:04 to play in the contest. %%MATCH_16%% finished the spurt with a put-back hoop.
On MSU's next possession, Aaron White was whistled for a foul on Garry Harris' jumper. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery protested the call to no avail. The freshman sank both free throws for a three-point lead. Marble missed a three-point attempt in the final seconds to leave Iowa short again.
McCaffery was asked after the game if he felt White fouled Harris. The coach asked the reporter what he thought. The media member said he didn't think that it was a foul. McCaffery then asked where the reporter went to school. He said Iowa. McCaffery said that his school has smart alumni.
White was asked what happened at the end of the game. He said what he thought because he would get in trouble.
While the officiating could have been questioned, it couldn't be changed. And Iowa had opportunities in this game and during the season to pave its own way to the NCAA Tournament. Now, it's out of the Hawkeyes' hands. They left Chicago with their fate with the committee.
"Absolutely we're an NCAA Tournament team," McCaffery said. "You look at the numbers across the board. You look how we played in the best conference in the country. There's an eye-ball test. You look at our team and it's an NCAA Tournament team."