Iowa enters the 2021 NCAA Tournament as a #2 seed in the West Region—by far the program’s best chance to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1999. In honor of this year’s Hawkeyes potentially breaking this 22-year drought, this is the first in a three-part series examining Iowa’s last three runs to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. First up: the 1999 Hawkeyes
Since Dr. Tom Davis guided the the 1987-88 Hawkeyes to the Sweet Sixteen, Iowa hadn’t been back as they entered the 1997-98 season. Davis never lost a first round game in the NCAA Tournament at Iowa (11-0), but from 1989-1997, his teams advanced to the second round of the Big Dance six times. All six times, the Hawkeyes went no further.
After opening the season ranked 14th in the country, the 97-98 Iowa basketball team failed to meet expectations, winning 20 games but missing the Big Dance and settling for a first round home loss to Georgia in the NIT. A few weeks later, with a cranky fanbase demanding better and an athletic department willing to listen to them, Davis was told by then Iowa Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby that, no matter what, his 13th season would be his last at the helm of the Hawkeye program.
What a last ride it would be.
Davis’ final run started off well as his Hawkeyes opened the 98-99 campaign 13-1 (4-0 B1G) with wins at #10 Kansas and over #8 Indiana. Following a 71-68 home victory over #21 Ohio State, Iowa lost seven of its last 12 games to finish in a three-way tie for second in the Big Ten standings. Ranked 20th entering the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, the Hawkeyes flamed out of the United Center with a 74-60 loss to #19 Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.
Still, at 18-9, the Hawkeyes were rewarded with the fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region.
First Round: #5 Iowa 77, #12 UAB 64
Two days before the Iowa’s first round game against the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), Dean Oliver was laid-up in the hospital needing treatment for dehydration. As a result, the third-team All-Big Ten point guard didn’t start for the Hawkeyes in their tournament opener, but he still made a difference in scoring 15 points—eight of them late in the second half—to go along with six assists as Iowa advanced to the second round with a 77-64 victory in Denver.
The Hawkeyes made 12 three-pointers—a school record for an NCAA Tournament game—including 10 of 12 attempts in the first half to take a 37-32 lead at halftime. Three of the makes from beyond the arc came courtesy of Jess Settles, who led Iowa with 17 points and nine rebounds, while Kent McCausland connected on three more treys in adding 13 points in the winning effort.
In all, seven different Hawkeyes made a three-pointer, while the Blazers made only six of 19 attempts from downtown, committed 16 turnovers, and shot only 38% from the field. It wasn’t a perfect effort for Iowa, as they turned the ball over 19 times, but the Hawkeyes shot 49% (26-53) from the field in holding off UAB’s numerous runs in the second half to keep Davis’ Iowa career alive for at least a couple more days.
Second Round: #5 Iowa 82, #4 Arkansas 72
Following a first half that saw fast-paced Arkansas race around Iowa for a 41-34 lead, Davis decided the best chance for his team to defeat the Razorbacks was to beat them at their own game. Over the final 20 minutes the Hawkeyes adopted their opponents up-and-down style and McCausland caught fire in hitting five second half three-pointers as Iowa rode an offensive wave into the Sweet Sixteen with a 82-72 victory.
Davis’ Iowa career was on life support as the Razorbacks’ lead grew to 47-34 early in the second half, but his players weren’t ready to say goodbye just yet.
Oliver and McCausland combined for 34 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists to lead the Hawkeyes while J.R. Koch chipped in 12 points, four rebounds, and two assists. Iowa received some big minutes from their bench led by Joey Range’s 12 point, four rebound, two assist performance. In all, four Hawkeye reserves combined for 26 points and 16 rebounds.
Down seven with under eight minutes remaining, back to back triples by McCausland started a 12-0 run that put Iowa ahead to stay. Utilizing their opponent's trademark full-court press, the Hawkeyes flustered and outscored the Razorbacks 23-6 over the final 7:30 to set up a date with top-seeded Connecticut in the West Regional and extend Davis’ tenure in Iowa City for at least a few more days.
It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyways, this remains the last second round victory in program history (hopefully for only another five days).
West Regional Semifinal: #1 Connecticut 78, #5 Iowa 68
Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, the top-seed in the West Region ended up being the top team in the country when the tournament was said and done. Iowa fought valiantly, leading by a point early in the second half, before #1 Connecticut ground out a 25-15 run over the final 10 minutes to pull away for a 78-68 win.
Koch and Jess Settles paced the Hawkeyes, combining for 25 points and nine rebounds, but the 31-2 Huskies’ two-headed monster of Richard “Rip” Hamilton (24 points) and Khalid El-Amin (21 points) proved too much for Iowa to handle. The Hawkeyes out rebounded Connecticut 32-26, but the Huskies shot 54% from the field and forced 15 Iowa turnovers in advancing to the Elite Eight and winning the National Title one week later in Tampa Bay.
Davis would depart Iowa as the program’s winningest coach with an overall record of 270-139. Over 13 seasons at Iowa Dr. Tom won 126 conference games, took the Hawkeyes to the NCAA Tournament nine times and won at least one game in each trip. His inability to replicate the deep tournament runs of his first two seasons was ultimately Davis’ downfall, but, ironically, his final season remains the furthest Iowa basketball has advanced in the Big Dance to date.
Coming up next in the series: The '88 Hawkeyes' Follow-Up to the Magic of 1987