By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For a team that only won four Big Ten games during the regular season, the thought of winning five games in five days at the Big Ten Tournament might seem ridiculous.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and his players see it differently because they have no other choice as the 12th seed heading into the conference tournament.
Iowa would have to win five games in five days to win its third Big Ten Tournament title and the challenge starts on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. against No. 13 seed Illinois in the first round at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
It isn’t unprecedented as Connecticut won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament in 2011. However, that team finished 9-9 in the Big East and was led by former All-America guard and current NBA all-star Kemba Walker, who scored 130 points over the those five games.
“They had Kemba Walker and that’s a good place to start there,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday before practice. “He’s not available.”
McCaffery laughed as he mentioned Kemba Walker, but there is a serious side to what McCaffery said.
“It’s important to bring it up that it has happened, it’s doable,” McCaffery said. “A lot of teams have won four. And, of course, a lot of teams have won three. You have to win three at least, typically.”
The Hawkeyes won games in four days to capture the Big Ten Tournament title in 2001 after finishing 7-9 in conference play that season.
Iowa (2001 as a No. 6 seed) and Michigan (2017 as a No. 8 seed) are the only teams to claim the tournament title by winning four games in four days.
Iowa’s five-in-five challenge almost certainly would fall short if something doesn’t change in a hurry on defense.
To say that Iowa has performed poorly on defense would be an understatement. The Hawkeyes have been dreadful on defense in most games this season, especially in the conference.
Iowa won its only conference game on the road against Illinois this season, but it took overtime and 104 points to do it because the Fighting Illini scored 97.
Iowa allowed at least 90 points in five Big Ten games this season and at least 77 points in all but four conference games.
Illinois is no pushover, either.
It has been struggle under first-year coach Brad Underwood, but his team has played well on defense and shown flashes on offense.
The Illini led the Big Ten and rank eighth nationally in forced turnovers (16.9). Illinois is also 19th in turnover margin (3.4), 22nd in offensive rebounds per game (12.6), and 25th in total steals (232).
Along with leading the Big Ten in forced turnovers, Illinois ranks second in turnover margin, steals per game, total steals, and offensive rebounds per game.
That’s a lot to be proud about on defense and a lot for Iowa to contend with on offense.
Illinois also has an emerging star in 6-foot-7 junior forward Leron Black and a potential star in freshman point guard Trent Frazier. They average 15.7 points and 12.5 points, respectively.
Sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas also is expected to play Wednesday after missing the first game against Iowa.
“That gives them a lot more depth in the backcourt and they had a lot of depth as it is,” McCaffery said. “Very athletic, very quick.
“Obviously, they play a unique style defensively. They’ve had great success over the years. Brad just instituted it there. It’s really been problematic for some teams.”
The loss to Iowa was one of three games that Illinois has lost in overtime this season.
“It’s kind of a unique season because there are a number of games where they seemed like they had the game won,” McCaffery said.
Iowa, on the other hand, lost eight conference games by double figures this season, including six by at least 14 points.
The players gained some much-needed momentum by defeating Northwestern 77-70 in the regular-season this past Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye.
The fact that Iowa ended a six-game losing streak was sort of overshadowed by Jordan Bohannon’s now-famous missed free throw near the end of the game that preserved Chris Street’s free throw record.
Bohannon figures to play a key role in Wednesday’s game as Iowa’s starting point guard and as one the most prolific 3-point shooters in the country. The former Linn-Mar star made seven 3-pointers in the victory over Northwestern this past Sunday and five in the victory over Illinois in January, along with all 10 of his free throws.
“They deny every pass, they’re up into me,” Bohannon said. “They’re going to guard me 95 feet from the basket.
“So I’m going to use that as my advantage like I did against them last time. I was able to penetrate a lot and get some assists that way and get in the paint because they’re going to deny the next pass so we could have some back cuts open.”
The Iowa players seemed relaxed on Monday, saying they have nothing to lose in a tournament in which little is expected from them.
But a loss to Illinois would have historical significance because it would mark the first time since 1938 that Iowa's season ended in February.
Hawkeye football legend Nile Kinnick started on that team as a junior.
Iowa vs. Illinois
What: Big Ten Tournament first-round game
When: Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
TV: Big Ten Network
IOWA IN THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
This week is the first time the Big Ten Tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Iowa has posted a 15-18 record in Big Ten Tournament games. The Hawkeyes earned tournament titles in 2001 and 2006 and lost in the title game in 2002. Only Michigan State (28), Illinois (27), Ohio State (25), Wisconsin (23), and Michigan (18) have more wins and a higher winning percentage than the Hawkeyes. Michigan State has won five tournament titles, Ohio State has won four, Wisconsin has won three, while Illinois and Iowa have two tournament titles (Ohio State was forced to vacate its 2002 title).
Iowa has played 10 different teams in the event, having met each team except Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland at least once (Rutgers and Maryland played in their first Big Ten Tournament in 2015). Iowa (2001 as a No. 6 seed) and Michigan (2017 as a No. 8 seed) are the only teams to claim the tournament title by winning four games in four days.
Iowa has been eliminated by the tournament champion in four of the 18 tournaments it did not win, including Michigan in the 1998 quarterfinals, Michigan State in the 2000 quarterfinals and 2012 quarterfinals, and Ohio State in the 2002 title game.
The Hawkeyes, a seventh seed, lost to Indiana (95-73) in the first round of the tournament a year ago.