Iowa basketball is in one of the toughest and most important weeks in program history. Winners of four straight games, the Hawkeyes are currently predicted as a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament per most Bracketologists as they stare down the barrel at trips to #3 Michigan Thursday and #4 Ohio State Sunday.
This week will mark only the second time Iowa has played back-to-back top-five Big Ten opponents in the Fran McCaffery era and the third time the program has faced a week this competitively difficult in the last 34 years.
1980s Big Ten basketball was insane. The famed 1986-87 Hawkeyes were slated to play three top-ten teams, #8 Illinois, #5 Purdue, and #3 Indiana, in eight days. Following a 91-88 road victory over the Illini, Iowa was voted the A.P. #1 team in the country entering back-to-back top-five matchups with the Boilermakers and Hoosiers.
1/19/87 - #1 Iowa 70, #5 Purdue 67
The Hawkeyes lost Roy Marble to injury early, turned the ball over 30 times (!), and trailed by as much as eight in the second half, yet still found a way to escape West Lafayette 70-67. Kevin Gamble, whose basket with 4:00 left gave Iowa the lead for good, scored a career-high 19 points and the Hawkeyes held the Boilermakers to just two points over the last 3:30.
In Marble’s absence, Ed Horton picked up some of the offensive slack by adding 14 points and eight rebounds for Iowa while Troy Lewis led Purdue with 20 points. Lewis however missed his last five shots and the Hawkeyes out-rebounded the Boilermakers 43-24 on the night to help them pull off the dramatic comeback.
1/22/87 - #1 Iowa 101, #3 Indiana 88
Three days later Marble returned from injury, scoring 16 points and helping top-ranked Iowa pull away from #3 Indiana, 101-88 in Iowa City. The victory over the Hoosiers was the program’s last win as the #1 team in the country to date. The win was also a school record 18th straight victory for Iowa which saw that streak, and its run atop the nation, come to an end against Ohio State two days later.
The Hawkeyes jumped on the Hoosiers early, taking an 11-3 lead five minutes into the contest before the Hoosiers fought back, eventually taking its first lead, 51-49, with 18:02 left in the game. But Iowa stormed back with a 31-17 run to take a 12-point lead midway through the second half and the Hawkeyes pulled away late for the win.
Six Hawkeyes scored in double figures, most notably B.J. Armstrong’s 16 points which all came in the second half. Kevin Gamble and Jeff Moe poured in 17 points each while Ed Horton and Brad Lohaus notched 14 points apiece.
Just how impressive was this three-game stretch for Iowa? Later that spring, Illinois finished as a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament along with Purdue, who ended up sharing the Big Ten title with Indiana, who went on to win the 1987 National Championship. Given the strength of conference as well as the eternal difficulty in winning on the road in the Big Ten, this may be the most impressive eight-day stretch in conference history.
The last time Iowa faced a week this difficult on paper came during the 2012-13 season. Fran McCaffery’s third Iowa team jumped out to an 11-2 start and was riding a six-game win streak heading into a ridiculously difficult Big Ten gauntlet that opened with three games against ranked opponents, the first two of which were ranked in the top-five.
12/31/12 - #5 Indiana 69, Iowa 65
Aaron White’s 15 points and six rebounds helped Iowa fight back from an eight-point halftime deficit, but double-doubles by Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo helped Indiana hold off the Hawkeyes’ upset bid, 69-65. Zeller terrorized Iowa with 19 points and 10 rebounds while Oladipo’s 14-point, 10-rebound performance was capped off by a put-back with 1:04 left to put the Hoosiers ahead to stay.
The Hawkeyes had a miserable day of shooting, underscored by Devyn Marble’s 1/14 performance from the field though the guard still finished with 14 points and nine rebounds thanks to going 12/13 from the free-throw line. Overall, Iowa went just 21/63 (.333) from the field and missed 14 three-pointers (3/17).
1/6/13 - #2 Michigan 95, Iowa 67
Six days after nearly upsetting the Hoosiers at home, the Hawkeyes hit the road and the road hit them back. Eventual Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke’s 19-point, 12-assist day helped Michigan put on an offensive clinic in a 28-point victory that really wasn’t that close.
After taking a 27-26 lead midway through the first half Michigan took an 11-point halftime lead and not much went right for Iowa the rest of the way. A stretch connecting the first and second halves saw Michigan put the game away by scoring 41 points in just 11 minutes, led by Glenn Robinson III’s double-double on 20 points and 10 rebounds. Marble and Anthony Clemmons scored 14 and 12 points respectively, but no other Hawkeye scored in double-figures including White, who was held to just six points.
Four days later, #22 Michigan State nipped Iowa 62-59 in Iowa City to complete the Hawkeyes’ rough open to conference play. It’s tough to fault this NIT-finalist Iowa squad for going 0-3 in this stretch, seeing as the Spartans ultimately reached the Sweet Sixteen, as did the Hoosiers, who spent a good portion of the season ranked #1 in the country and won the Big Ten title. And then there was Michigan, who finished with 31 wins and ultimately reached the National Title game. For this young Iowa team, going 1-2 in this stretch would’ve been a massive success.
It's Mich. . .again
Coincidentally enough, the last two times the Hawkeyes took the court across from a top-five Big Ten opponent they faced Michigan.
2/1/19 - Iowa 74, #5 Michigan 59
The last time the Hawkeyes defeated a top-five opponent came courtesy of Iowa’s 2018-19 squad. The Hawkeyes sat at just 5-5 in the conference and were fresh off back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Minnesota when the 20-1 Wolverines visited Iowa City on a cold winter’s night.
Iowa used a 21-2 first half run to jump out to a 42-29 lead at halftime and never looked back as Hawkeye fans stormed the Carver-Hawkeye Arena court following Iowa’s 74-59 upset win. A young Luka Garza showed off flashes of his eventual greatness, leading all scorers with 19 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks while a freshman Joe Wieskamp poured in 16 points along with seven rebounds and five steals.
The story of the night however was Ryan Kreiner who ripped Michigan for a double-double off the bench on 15 points and 10 rebounds in helping the Hawkeyes out-rebound the Wolverines 45-35 and limit them to shooting just 32% from the field (21/65). Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, and Zavier Simpson combined for 42 of Michigan’s 59 points.
12/5/19 - #4 Michigan 103, Iowa 91
Iowa’s last trip to Ann Arbor, MI was also its last meeting with a top-five Big Ten opponent and not even an all-time effort from Garza could get Hawkeyes over the hump. The big man announced himself to the college basketball world on the back of a ridiculous 44-point, eight rebound performance, but Iowa’s defense let them down in the Wolverines’ 103-91 victory.
Six Michigan players, including all five starters, scored in double figures, led by Franz Wagner’s 18 points and Simpson’s 16-point, seven assist, and six rebound night. On the other side, Garza and Connor McCaffery (12 points) were the only Hawkeyes to score in double digits as the Wolverines torched Iowa for 103 points on 32/58 shooting (.552) from the field including 10 threes.
And so Iowa will once again be staring down a top-five Michigan team Thursday before heading to Columbus where #4 Ohio State awaits. This may be the most difficult two-game week for the program since that 1987 campaign, but in college basketball "difficult" typically equals "opportunity" and a pair of wins this week would put this group of Hawkeyes on track to do something even the beloved '87 Hawks couldn't: capture a 1-seed in the Big Dance.
It won't be easy but, then again, nothing ever is.