By Pat Harty
The Iowa men’s basketball lost at Illinois 78-76 on Sunday, and as a result, failed to earn a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa also closed the regular season with three losses in its last four games, so some might assume that another Fran Fade is happening.
A Fran Fade is what some fans call it when Iowa struggles down the stretch under head coach Fran McCaffery because it has happened before, although, it seems to get blown out of proportion.
This doesn’t feel like a Fran Fade because two of the three losses down the stretch were to Michigan State and Illinois on the road where Big Ten teams have struggled mightily this season.
The one head-scratcher was this past Tuesday’s 77-68 loss to Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but Purdue also crushed Iowa by 36 points on Feb. 5 in West Lafayette, Ind.
So perhaps Purdue just has Iowa’s number this season.
Another reason this doesn’t feel like a Fran Fade is because Iowa refused to quit against Illinois on Sunday after trailing by 16 points in the second half.
And then, of course, there is the Luka Garza factor to consider.
Iowa’s junior center closed the regular season in style, scoring 28 points and leading the furious comeback down the stretch.
It marked the 16th consecutive game in which Garza has scored at least 28 games, trying Fred Brown’s school record from 1971.
“I think sometimes you have to take step back and admire what he’s doing,” Fran McCaffery said in his post-game press conference. “It was kind of like throughout the course of the game I never really considered taking him out.
‘Very few guys can play with that level of intensity against that level of physicality for that long and continue to be effective. So we’re just very fortunate to have him and we’re going to use his talent and his tenacity because it’s infectious to the rest of the team.”
Iowa fell to the fifth seed with Sunday’s loss and will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Minnesota and Northwestern on Thursday in Indianapolis.
The winner of Thursday’s game will face Illinois in the quarterfinals on Friday, so there could be another chapter to what is becoming an intense rivalry.
Some of the players on both teams, and the coaches for that matter, don’t seem to like each other, and when you combine that dynamic with a chance to earn a double-bye, there is a chance for hostility as shown on Sunday.
Iowa guard Connor McCaffery and Illinois guard DaMonte Williams had a heated exchange in the first half in which they were face-to-face and clearly speaking their mind.
Williams had knocked the ball away from McCaffery, who then appeared to grab Williams’ arm in an attempt to regain possession.
For a few seconds, it looked as if they might come to blows, but fortunately, it never reached that point.
Emotions also ran high after Iowa’s 72-65 victory in the regular season on Feb. 2 at Carver-Hawkeye when words were exchanged between members of both coaching staffs during the post-game handshake.
Two of the Illinois assistants clearly were the aggressors during that altercation, and Fran McCaffery took exception and abruptly ended the handshakes.
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu was asked during the post-game press conference why the rivalry has become so heated and he didn't mince words.
"We don't like each other. It's as simple as that," Dosunmu said.
Fran McCaffery also was asked about the rivalry appearing to have extra emotion, but he dismissed that narrative.
“I don’t think so,” McCaffery said. “I think it’s that way every game in this league. I really do. There’s a respect factor when you look at how many teams are going to be going to the tournament, and the quality of player and team each team faces every night.
“I just think it’s kind of to be expected, I guess.”
The fact that Iowa even had a chance to earn a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament heading into Sunday’s game was an accomplishment in itself.
Iowa was considered an NCAA bubble team at best heading into the season, and that was with a healthy Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge.
It’s easy to forget that Iowa only finished 10-10 in conference play last season, and had to replace three starters from that team in Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss and Bohannon, along with arguably the top sixth-man in the Big Ten in forward Nicholas Baer.
Iowa finished 11-9 in the Big Ten this season and is 20-11 heading into postseason.
It is imperative that sophomore Joe Wieskamp break out of his current shooting slump, which included scoring just seven points in Sunday's game, because it's hard to see Iowa being a huge factor in the postseason without the 6-6 Wieskamp playing well on offense.
To have earned a double-bye in the conference tournament certainly would have been a nice way to enter postseason, but it didn’t happen, and now it’s time to move on and stay the course.
There still is plenty for this Iowa team to accomplish, even with Sunday's loss being so costly.