Howe: Hawks Hunting Again

Iowa became one of the darlings of college basketball in January when it shot up to No. 10 in the national rankings. A late-season swoon dropped the Hawkeyes to an afterthought on the national landscape. Perhaps a return to the role of underdog is just what they needed.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Iowa entered the season supremely motivated. The Hawkeyes were hunting.

They's dealt with humiliation. Postseason play was a pipe dream four years ago when they finished 4-14 in the Big Ten.

Iowa built. It reached the NIT second round a year later before making the finals of that event last April. It created a buzz that this team could be a sleeper in 2013-14.

The Hawkeyes realized those predictions in January when they climbed to No. 10 in the country. That desire to prove they belonged with the best in the land helped push them there.

Iowa's role was reversed. It now was being hunted. Staying atop the mountain proved equally as difficult, perhaps more so, as climbing it.

National talking heads pegged it as Final Four contender. A January win at No. 3 Ohio State created talk of its first Big Ten regular season title since '79.

The Hawkeyes handled this new position poorly. Perhaps they bought into the hype and lost their focus.

"As to whether or not it directly affected anybody, I don't know, but I wouldn't dismiss the possibility," Coach Fran McCaffery said last week.

McCaffery pointed to others' opinions being readily available for his players on their phones. It was difficult to avoid the glorification coming their way.

"I think you can get caught up in what everybody's saying," McCaffery said. "That's why I don't look at that. You know, I just try to keep working and keep getting my guys ready. You can tell them, don't look at it. They are going to look at it. It's just how they live now."

Ironically, looking at what others are saying now could return Iowa's edge. Few people, including its own fans, are expecting much when it begins NCAA Tournament play against Tennessee Wednesday in Dayton.

"We see with our seed that people undervalue us," senior Zach McCabe said. "We've always had that underdog type of mentality. We just have to get back to that."

After losing six of their last seven games, including a deflating defeat to lowly Northwestern in the first round of last week's Big Ten Tournament, the Hawkeyes, once again, have something to prove. Less than two weeks ago, they were projected as a sixth seed in the NCAAs. Sunday, they found out they were an eleven and would be one of eight teams required to play in the first round. Tennessee was favored to beat them.

"I don't think our confidence is shot one bit," senior Melsahn Basabe said. "We know we have some things that we need to address. We need to get back, defensively, to the level we had reached. But I don't think it's a confidence issue."

Iowa has performed well in the role of underdog. It dismantled conference champion Michigan, 85-67, Feb. 8 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Wolverines have lost just twice (at Wisconsin and in Sunday's league tournament title game to Michigan State) since that game.

The Hawkeyes have been favored to win in nine of their last 10 games (at Michigan State was the lone contest in which they were underdogs). They only won three of them straight up. They looked like a team wilting under the pressure of being the hunted.

The Volunteers, as of Monday morning, were two-point favorites to defeat Iowa on Wednesday (8:10 pm CT, TruTV). That hasn't happened much this season.

In '13-14, Iowa has began a game as the underdog just six times in 32 contests. They came on the road at Iowa State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Its only victory occurred in Columbus.

The hope here is that the Hawkeyes have been humbled. They've gone from a sheik mid-season pick to make a deep NCAA run to an afterthought on the national landscape.

The players seemed rejuvenated Sunday night after the NCAA announcement. It was easy for some folks outside of the program to lose sight of the strides the team made since McCaffery took over before the '10-11 season. They reached the Big Dance for the first time since '06 and you could tell it meant something to the Hawkeyes.

None of the aforementioned items are meant to suggest Tennessee will lack motivation. It climbed off the bubble and into the Field of 68 by winning five of its last six games. It's only loss came to No. 1 overall Florida, 56-49, in the SEC Tournament.

It's more about Iowa and where its collective head resides. The Hawkeyes did not deal well with success and heightened expectations. Perhaps they're hungry again to prove doubters wrong.

"It's simple," Basabe said. "We just need to go out and execute. We've shown we're a very good team. We've beat NCAA Tournament teams. We played close with a two seed like Wisconsin. We had them beat at home.

"I like our chances. It's not about what everybody else is doing. It's about what we're going to do. We're not focusing on what we could have done. We're focusing on the game plan and executing."

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