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It’s time to reevaluate the standards for Iowa men’s basketball

(Jeffrey Becker/USA Today sports)

When Iowa takes the court Thursday night in Madison, they will do so without the presence of head coach Fran McCaffery, who will presumably be watching the game at home while serving out the second game of his two-game suspension. The suspension, of course, was handed down in the wake of a widely publicized report that McCaffery chased and berated the officials after the Hawkeyes’ 90-70 loss to Ohio State last Tuesday.

Between the head coach’s suspension and the ongoing off-court drama involving play-by-play man Gary Dolphin, it might be easy to overlook the fact that Iowa (21-8, 10-8) seems to be in the middle of yet another late-season swoon. You might even be more inclined to say things are fine when you consider the team has won five of their last eight contests—after all, a win is a win. But you would also have to be overlooking their overall play throughout that stretch to insist there is nothing wrong.

Since knocking off a top-five Michigan team on February 1st, the Hawkeyes have looked more like an NIT operation than an NCAA Tournament lock. Passive defense, poor rebounding and stagnant offense has allowed what many would consider inferior opponents to not only hang around, but to actually put Iowa on the ropes. If not for Jordan Bohannon’s late-game threes against Northwestern and Indiana, or Joe Wieskamp’s one-in-a-million bank shot against Rutgers, we’d be talking about an 18-11 team that had gone 2-6 in that eight-game stretch.

To say the late-season slide is typical of a McCaffery-led Iowa team isn’t exactly truthful. In fact, things seem to alternate year by year, as The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman points out here:

By virtue of their 10 Big Ten wins this season, the Hawkeyes have assured themselves a .500 or better finish in conference play for the sixth time in nine years under McCaffery. Based on that statistic, one would assume McCaffery has nothing to worry about when it comes to job security. In November of 2017, athletic director Gary Barta quietly extended McCaffery’s contract to run through at least the 2022-23 season, a signal that Barta, too, was happy enough with his head coach’s work to keep him around for a while.

Conference record only tells part of the story, however. Success in college athletics is measured by how you perform in the postseason—and that is where McCaffery has fallen very short.

In eight full seasons as head coach, McCaffery is just 3-8 in the conference tournament, though his teams have qualified for national postseason tournaments six times—three NITs and three NCAA Tournaments. He has collected just two NCAA Tournament wins in that span, and his crowning achievement in Iowa City is a runner-up finish in the NIT in 2013.

So how do you balance a fairly consistent regular season track record with a generally disappointing postseason resumé?

The answer to that question is another question, for which everyone will have a different response: What is a reasonable standard toward which Iowa men’s basketball can be expected to strive?

As an example, take a look at Iowa football. Will anyone, fans and administrators alike, ever come to expect perennial College Football Playoff berths? No. But is there an expectation of eight to nine wins per year, with a Big Ten title contender every three or four years? Absolutely. Even the most adamant Kirk Ferentz detractors would be hard-pressed to admit the 20-year head coach hasn’t consistently met the standard he’s created for his program. Because of that, Iowa is, and probably always will be, considered a football school. In that sense, McCaffery and the basketball program have benefitted greatly from lesser expectations. To be fair, no other program in the University of Iowa athletics department is held to the same standard as the football program. The question is, why shouldn’t they be?

Without the benefit of being a college basketball blue blood, Iowa will never be judged by the number of NCAA championships it has, or even the number of Final Four berths they achieve. But is it unreasonable to think they can compete for a Big Ten championship every three or four seasons? Would fielding a perennial NCAA Tournament team be too lofty a goal? Is it too much to ask to see the Hawkeyes dancing their way into the second weekend on a consistent basis?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then perhaps a reevaluation is in order to determine why exactly the basketball program can’t be held to a higher standard than what it currently is, while they continue to watch programs with similar talent and no significant recruiting advantages–*cough* Wisconsin—reach the Sweet Sixteen nearly every year. When Barta gave McCaffery his extension in 2017, he was either happy with what he had previously seen or he was confident the next six years would be prosperous. Time will tell if he is clairvoyant, or just a steward of middling expectations.

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