The weather is below freezing in Des Moines, Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow, and Iowa basketball is stringing together losses. It must be February.
The so-called "Fran Fade" is right up there in Iowa athletics lore with Ronnie Harmon's four fumbles in 1985 Rose Bowl, Hawkeye basketball from 2007-2010, and the AIRBHG. Each is incredible in its own right, but also very real and very painful.
It was inconceivable that Harmon, who had fumbled once in all of 1985, coughed the ball up four times against UCLA. It was inexplicable that the once-proud Hawkeye basketball program cratered so badly over a 4-year span in the late aughts, or that four Iowa running-backs each tore ACLs in 2004.
And it's pretty extraordinary that Fran McCaffery's Iowa teams either run out of gas or downright collapse once the calendar turns to February.
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With all due respect to McCaffery’s first three Hawkeye squads, they were more a by-product of the crater of a program left by Todd Lickliter. The bar of success for each of those teams ranged from win 10+ games to make the NIT. Ironically, the 2012-13 Hawkeyes pulled off the most successful postseason run to date of Fran's tenure—going 11-6 in February and March en route to a runner-up finish in the 2013 NIT.
Since that 74-54 loss to Baylor, Iowa is just 38-43 (.469) in games played after January 31. That record features a 7-11 record against ranked opponents and 25(!!!!!) losses to unranked teams
With the current Hawkeyes 1-3 in their last four games and a late-season collapse staring them in the face, it's apropos we take a look at how each of Iowa's seasons from 2014-2020 unfolded once the calendar turned to February, with two exceptions:
1.) I’ve omitted the 2016-17 and 2017-18 teams because the 16-17 Hawkeyes were very young and their NIT berth was considered a success at the time, and 2.) the 17-18 Hawkeyes were already toast by the time winter rolled around. It feels like a waste of time to spend any time on those squads in this context.
Now, grab you favorite alcoholic beverage (or bleach), and let's begin. . .
Entering February: 16-5 (5-3), Ranked 15th
After peaking at #10 in January, the 16-5 (5-3 B1G) Hawkeyes were #15 in the nation entering February. Iowa started 3-1 in the month with wins at Illinois and Penn State as well as a home win over eventual conference champion #10 Michigan.
Then they fell off a cliff.
Losses in five of their final six regular season games—three against unranked opponents—sent the #24 Hawkeyes staggering into the Big Ten Tournament where a hot-shooting Northwestern team ousted them in the first round with a 67-62 upset. Six days later the season would mercifully end in a gut-wrenching 78-65 overtime loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four.
Sitting at 19-6 (8-4) after a win at Penn State on February 15th, #16 Iowa was threatening to capture a top-5 seed in the Big Dance. Instead, it tail-spun to losses in seven of its final eight games and was done for the summer a little over a month later.
Finished Season: 20-13 (9-9), Unranked
Entering February: 13-8 (4-4), Unranked
If only February and March were always this much fun.
At 15-10 (6-6), Iowa was heading for a massively disappointing NIT season following a 66-61 overtime loss at Northwestern on February 15th. But the Hawkeyes flipped the script on the year (and possibly the McCaffery era) by ripping off six-straight wins by a combined score of 450-345 (including road wins by 16 at Indiana and 28 at Nebraska), entering the Big Ten Tournament at 21-10 (12-6).
For the second straight year however, Iowa laid an egg in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament by letting an eight-point halftime lead slip away in a 67-58 loss to a Penn State team it had beaten less than two weeks earlier. Still, the Hawkeyes received a #7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and used it to beat #10 Davidson before bowing out to #2 Gonzaga in the second round.
It’s fair to criticize this Iowa team for the hole they dug themselves entering February, but wins in seven of its last nine games—including the program’s first victory in the Big Dance since 2001—is easily the most successful late season run of any of McCaffery’s non-NIT squads as of right now.
Finished Season: 22-12 (12-6), Unranked
Entering February: 17-4 (8-1), Ranked #3
Oh, the 2015-16 season. . .
Unranked in the preseason, Iowa opened conference play by upsetting #1 Michigan State and was 19-5 (10-1) and #4 in the country following a 77-65 win at Illinois on February 7th. Four days later, the Hawkeyes were alone in first place in the Big Ten entering a first-place showdown at unranked Indiana.
What followed was arguably the most disappointing month and a half in program history.
A seven-point defeat in Bloomington, IN was Iowa’s first in a 2-5 stretch over the last seven games of the regular season (including three losses to unranked teams), culminating with a second-straight loss to the Hoosiers in Iowa City on March 1, dropping Iowa to 20-9 (11-6) and eliminating them from Big Ten title contention.
Yet another first-round flameout in the Big Ten Tournament, this time a 68-66 loss to 12-seed Illinois, dropped the Hawkeyes to a 7th-seed in the NCAA Tournament. A buzzer-beating overtime win over Temple gave-way to a second round, 87-68 blowout loss to eventual national champion Villanova that wasn’t even that close.
In the span of 37 days Iowa went from being ranked #4 in the country, in first place in the Big Ten, and poised to lock-up a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, to losing seven of its last ten, finishing in a tie for third in the conference (THREE GAMES BACK OF FIRST), and flaming out as a seven-seed in the first weekend of the Big Dance.
End of transmission.
Finished Season: 22-11 (12-6), Ranked #25
Entering February: 16-5 (5-5), Unranked
After a surprisingly successful non-conference season, the Hawkeyes split their first 10 Big Ten contests before winning their first four games in February, capped off by Joe Wieskamp’s miracle buzzer-beater at Rutgers.
And then the fun stopped. A one-point home loss to #25 Maryland paved the way for losses in five of Iowa’s last six games (three by double figures), the capper an inconceivable collapse at Nebraska on the final day of the regular season that saw the Hawkeyes blow a 74-65 lead with :50 left in the game.
At 22-10 (10-10), Iowa saved its season with a victory over Illinois in the Big Ten tournament’s first round before being blown out of the United Center in a 74-53 loss to Michigan the following night. The Hawkeyes responded with a come-from-behind win over seven-seeded Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before suffering a heartbreaking 83-77 overtime loss to #2 Tennessee two days later.
Finished Season: 23-12 (10-10), Unranked
Entering February: 15-6 (6-4), Ranked #18
It feels like the cancellation of the conference and national tournaments, combined with Luka Garza’s ascendance to Big Ten and National Player of the Year status, let last year’s Iowa team off the hook for yet another lackluster run to end the season.
Make no mistake, they faded down the stretch.
The 16-6 (7-4) #18 Hawkeyes started February on the right foot with a Super Bowl Sunday home victory over #19 Illinois before following it up with one of the worst performances of the McCaffery era—a 104-68 loss at Purdue. It kicked off a stretch where Iowa lost five of its last nine games, including three times to unranked foes— twice to the Boilermakers and once to Indiana.
We’ll never know whether or not the 19-20 Hawkeyes could’ve turned their season around by the time the Big Dance rolled around, but they were riding a two-game losing streak entering the Big Ten Tournament and, judging by the aforementioned past years, it wasn’t likely to end with Iowa reaching the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1999.
Finished Season: 20-11 (11-9), Ranked #25
So here we are, 11 years into the McCaffery era and yet another one of his teams—his most talented since arriving in Iowa City—appears on the ropes. It's fair to ask if these late winter nightmares will ever disappear because, if a squad featuring the eventual National and Big Ten Player of the Year as well as seven upperclassmen can’t hold it together down the stretch, I'm not sure any of Fran's future teams will.
Of course, there’s still plenty of season left for the Hawkeyes to turn this thing around, so that's a question for another day. In the meantime I’m gonna save this article somewhere I can easily find it on my computer. I have a feeling it’ll be relevant once again 12 months from now.
I can’t believe they’re on the verge doing this again.