With games against Purdue and Illinois, the Hawkeyes expected to get a split and were hoping they could show enough pluck to hang in with the undefeated Illini and find a way to win down the stretch.
Instead, the Hawkeyes lost both games and as a result have little hope of getting into the NCAA tournament unless they can come up with a major run that allows them to win the postseason Big Ten tournament.
Since high-scoring Pierre Pierce was dismissed from the team in late January, the Hawkeyes have had a hard time coming up with key points when the game is on the line.
Pierce had a very difficult week as his appeal to get reinstated to the team was denied by head coach Steve Alford. Shortly after Alford refused to relent, prosecutors toughened charges against him stemming from an alleged assault on a former girlfriend.
The new charges include two counts of burglary, one count of intent to commit sexual assault and one count of fourth-degree criminal mischief.
While the Hawkeyes clearly did not play well in the Feb. 16 66-63 loss at Purdue, they came up with a very solid effort against top-ranked Illinois. Alford employed a very nasty zone defense that limited the Illini from three-point range and allowed the Hawkeyes to stay within reach at 61-58 with less than five minutes remaining.
However, the Illini forced 21 turnovers and were tough down the stretch as they emerged with a 75-65 victory. Illinois clinched the game when Deron Williams got his hands on a Mike Henderson inbounds pass and then found speedy Dee Brown with a perfect pass that led to layup. The play gave the Illini a 66-58 lead.
"That play was real big," said Alford.
"It was another careless turnover. We're having a hard time making plays during that last five minutes. That's the hardest thing for guys like Mike (Henderson) and Carlton (Reed) and Alex (Thompson) and the new guys. You have to keep fighting through it and hopefully break through sometime."
The Hawkeyes fought hard in two losses to the Illini this season. However, those "moral" victories really mean very little and it seems like the Hawkeyes are destined to yet another NIT appearance.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Jeff Horner, shooting guard Mike Henderson, center Erek Hansen, power forward Greg Brunner, forward-guard Adam Haluska.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We know what we have to do now. That's win our last four games." — Jeff Horner on how the Hawkeyes can still earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. By winning their final four games, the Hawkeyes would finish with an 8-8 Big Ten record.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: at Minnesota, Feb. 23; at Penn State, Feb. 26
KEYS: In order to have even an outside shot at making the NCAA tournament, the Hawkeyes need to win their last four regular-season games or sweep through the Big Ten tournament. Both scenarios are very unlikely. Finding a way to beat Minnesota on the road will be difficult since the Gophers have proved to be one of the most improved teams in the conference. The lowly Nittany Lions may look at the Hawkeyes' visit as a legitimate opportunity for a rare Big Ten win and come up with a sensational effort.
ROSTER REPORT: Head coach Steve Alford denied guard Pierre Pierce's appeal for reinstatement to the Hawkeyes last week. Iowa prosecutors upgraded charges pending against Pierce shortly thereafter.