Iowa Prepares for Crucial Final Four Game Stretch

With the Iowa Hawkeyes on the 'eve' of their crucial final four regular season games of this Big Ten season, Hawkeyenation.com columnist Marty Gallagher takes a look at how important the upcoming game against Illinois is, as well as 'projecting' Iowa's possible finish in the 2003-2004 Big Ten Race.

"Nothing is riding on this, except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press…and maybe the future of the country."

That's one of my favorite lines (Ben Bradlee to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) in one of my all-time favorite movies ("All the President's Men"). Bradlee, the Editor of The Washington Post, told the two young reporters to go home, take a shower, rest up for 10 minutes and then get back to work. And you got the feeling that's EXACTLY what Woodward and Bernstein did.

Because all of their efforts, sacrifices, risks and sweat of the previous year would come down to finishing the job right. A mistake at the 11th hour could unravel everything.

There was much to gain…and, of course, much to lose.

At the risk of being overly dramatic—oh, who cares, I'll go ahead and be overly dramatic—this is roughly the same predicament the Iowa basketball team finds itself in heading into a showdown with red-hot Illinois this week in Iowa City.

This Hawkeye team has had another roller-coaster season, with a great win early (Louisville), a couple of bad losses (UNI and Northwestern), two academic casualties (Mike Henderson and Nick DeWitz), a very bad break (Jared Reiner's injury), a sudden exit (Sean Sonderleiter) and victories in three of its last four games, including a heart-stopper at Indiana that has vaulted this group into "bubble status" for the NCAA Tournament.

Along the way, we have seen tremendous effort and strong team chemistry among the players who remain. Jeff Horner has come out of his shooting shell and developed into the perimeter threat everyone was hoping he could be. Greg Brunner has improved into one of the steadiest rebounders in the Big Ten. Glen Worley has returned from injury and given the Hawks a big spark lately. Pierre Pierce continues to be a difficult match-up for every opponent. Brody Boyd looks like a senior who's not going to go down without a fight. Erek Hansen has come out of nowhere to be a big factor off the bench.

Coach Steve Alford looks ready to finally get the "he's never gone .500 or better in the Big Ten" monkey off his back.

And, depending on how well the Hawkeyes play in their final four regular-season games, the "Big Dance" is still a very real possibility.

It all begins with Illinois on Wednesday night. A victory keeps "March Madness" hopes alive and an 11-5 Big Ten mark remains a possibility. A loss would drop the Hawks to 7-6 in the conference, with road games at Northwestern and Purdue looking a little less "winnable"…and the chances of making the NCAA Tourney would be down to winning the Big Ten Tournament.

Like Ben Bradlee said, "Nothing is riding on this."

Yeah, right.

The Fighting Illini (18-5, 9-3) have won six straight Big Ten games, including home games with Michigan State and Wisconsin. Illinois has a very real shot at winning the conference (or sharing the title with the Spartans), but will probably have to win its final four games to do it. So, don't think for a minute that Coach Bruce Weber's team will overlook the Hawkeyes. Not with a potential Big Ten title on the line.

Illinois has turned up its defensive effort of late, holding five of its last six opponents to 58 points or less. This is the type of thing that bodes well for a team that plays three of its last four games on the road.

For Iowa, there is still a very real possibility—I said "possibility"—of finishing in THIRD place in the Big Ten. Seriously. If the Hawks could somehow run the table in their last four games, their 11-5 record could be good enough to match Wisconsin's Big Ten record when the dust settles. The Badgers, losers of three of their last five games, have an 8-4 record, but finish the season with a pair of road games (at Michigan State and at Indiana).

The more realistic view, however, is for Iowa to shoot for a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten…and a 10-6 record should be good enough to achieve that. The way things look right now, the Hawks wouldn't have to share that spot, either.

What about Purdue? The Boilermakers (7-6) have to play at Wisconsin, before hosting Illinois and Iowa. Don't look for Gene Keady's team to sweep through that stretch.

First things first, of course. Which is why the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois on Wednesday night is so crucial. Momentum is everything. Finishing the regular-season with a strong showing it the final 10 games is important. Ending the year as one of the top four teams in the Big Ten (regardless of how "down" it is) would be hard for the Selection Committee to ignore.

Beating Illinois at home is a must. It would not only give Iowa the chance to achieve all the aforementioned goals, but it would also provide the Hawkeyes with another "good win" down the stretch, which is another important factor on Selection Sunday.

We haven't seen an over-abundance of "hot streaks" for Iowa in the Big Ten during the Alford Era, but this team appears ready to make a run at it. These guys have definitely put in the time, energy and effort to make it happen. They have pushed past the difficulty of losing four players from the nine-man rotation earlier in the season and continued to move forward, focusing on the goal of getting invited to The Dance.

The 11th hour is closing in.

I think I know what Ben Bradlee would tell them.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)


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