IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa knows that it will need to make a stunning run through the Big Ten tournament to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
The Hawkeyes think they're up for it.
Iowa's postseason resume is saddled with a weak nonconference schedule and a lack of quality road wins. But the sheer depth of the Big Ten means the Hawkeyes (20-11, 9-9) could drastically improve their profile before the NCAA tournament field is announced on Sunday.
Sixth-seeded Iowa opens Big Ten tournament play against Northwestern on Thursday night. Coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday there is a "good possibility" that starting guard Mike Gesell will be back after suffering what he said was a stress reaction in his right foot late last month.
"For us to have a chance to hold our own destiny, however many games we win, to have people kind of thinking we can get into the (NCAA) tournament depending on how many games we win, it's just a fun time of year," Iowa forward Aaron White said.
The Hawkeyes turned their season around after a double-overtime loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 6. They won six of their last eight games to reach the break-even mark in the league for the first time since going 9-7 in 2007, former coach Steve Alford's final year.
But like many so-called bubble teams, Iowa's resume has its high points and its low points.
A .500 record in the toughest league in the country would seem to make the Hawkeyes a lock for the NCAA tournament, especially since Minnesota and Illinois — both of whom lost to Iowa — are likely in despite 8-10 league marks. But an RPI of 72 and a 2-7 road mark in Big Ten games make the NIT a more likely destination.
McCaffery defended his team's resume, pointing to data other than RPI as criteria he hopes the NCAA selection committee will consider.
"We don't have any bad losses, really," McCaffery said. "We have some really good wins. We've been consistent. So I think from that standpoint, I'm very happy with what we've done."
Iowa might also be uniquely positioned for a run through the league tournament because its bench is about as deep as other team in the league.
The Hawkeyes have no trouble playing 10, an asset at a time of year when many benches are shortened. The expected return of Gesell should help the backcourt, and the sudden emergence of sophomore forward/center Gabe Olaseni has shored up the frontcourt.
Olaseni had 10 blocks in the final two games of the regular season, and his awareness on offense has grown tremendously in recent weeks.
"If you're a seven-man rotation, it's going to be hard," McCaffery said. "You're going to slow down in four days. The other thing is, as teams prepare for us, no matter what game you look at, sometimes there are just different guys for us on the floor that are producing."
It's been easy for Iowa fans to dream up scenarios that end with the Hawkeyes snapping a seven-year NCAA tournament drought.
A third win over Northwestern would likely set up a matchup against Michigan State, a top-10 team the Hawkeyes nearly beat in Iowa City two months ago. An upset over the Spartans could earn Iowa a rematch with 10th-ranked Ohio State, another team the Hawkeyes made a strong run at in January.
The prevailing notion among Iowa's passionate but postseason-starved fan base is that a run to the Big Ten title game would be enough to get into the NCAA tournament.
But the Hawkeyes and their fans are letting themselves indulge in hope — a common commodity this time of year.
"Right now, we're just focused on Northwestern, because if we don't beat them we can't go far," Gesell said. "We have confidence in ourselves that we can go down (to Chicago) and win this whole thing. That's how confident we are in our team."
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