And now comes the postmortem, along with that pesky question: What should we think about the Hawkeye hoopers’ recently completed season?
Acknowledging the inherent randomness of a one-off tourney, I think "disappointed" is the right word (as much as we can be disappointed at unpaid 18-to-21 year olds entertaining us during a once-a-century pandemic). Before deep-diving into my feelings (won’t get too weird, I promise), let me acknowledge that the Dance is a measure of skill, mental toughness, and every other type of competitive coachspeak out there... while, at the same time, it's also a reflection of luck. Case in point: #2 seed Houston played four double digit seeds en route to the Final Four. Our Hawkeyes, meanwhile, squared off against a well-rested, underseeded regular season Power Five champion, one uniquely equipped to exploit our roster weaknesses in the second damn round. I am waiting for the day when the Hawkeyes get to play Lady Tremaine against a March Cinderella.
As for Oregon’s 15-point rout (and, make no mistake, it was a rout), the Ducks exposed Iowa’s defensive liabilities. From the outset—literally within the first couple of minutes, Oregon’s army of athletic guards penetrated the lane at will. And when Iowa went zone, Oregon’s shooters rained fire over Iowa’s undersized guards. Oregon’s Will Richardson shooting over JBo early in the second half (see the 7:25 mark) captured just how overmatched Iowa’s guards were against the Ducks. We didn’t have the personnel to contain, let alone neutralize, Oregon’s talented playmakers. And just like YouTube clips don’t lie, neither does the box score. Oregon shot a sizzling 56% against the Hawkeyes; Duck guards outscored their Hawkeye counterparts a cool 63-0. That Hawkeye defensive respectability during our late-season winning streak? A cruel tease for Sweet 16-starved Hawkeye fans.
And that’s where the disappointment comes in: despite Iowa’s well-chronicled defensive issues, Iowa showed just enough improvement on the defensive end to augur hopes of a deep Madness run. During Iowa’s late Big Ten winning streak, its KenPom defensive efficiency rating surged into the mid-50s. On the Go Iowa Awesome Slack, I commented, “I don’t need great; I just need basic competence on the defensive end.”
With Iowa’s newfound defensive chops, culminating in the Hawkeyes’ dissection of the Buckeyes, I legitimately entertained notions of a Hawkeye staycation in Indianapolis, perhaps one totaling 29 days. I convinced myself the pieces—a rampaging Peacock, a gunnin’ Weezy, an ever-tightening defense—were there. I thought the Sweet 16 was this team’s baseline—after all, we spent the better part of the year in the top 10 (and played in the nation’s toughest conference, or so I thought).
The Oregon game was a microcosm of Fran’s tenure; the Hawkeye are just good enough to break your heart. I have spilled enough digital ink on Fran’s February stumbles. But this year... this year was going to be the breakthrough year that so many of us crave. And in one sense, it was. Fran turned the well-documented Fran fade on its head; Iowa proved that it can win meaningful games in Fran’s namesake month (see: the OSU demolition for one prominent example). And the Hawkeyes did win 14 Big Ten games, the most in Fran’s tenure. These are significant accomplishments, worthy of praise (if not necessarily another Barta contract extension). But for a season with championship-level expectations (I mean, how often does the de facto National Player of the Year return?), this season feels like, there I said it again, a disappointment.
While Fran deserves flowers for this season’s accomplishments, the big bouquets are reserved for conference titles and deep March tournament runs. We have settled into late-era Dr. Tom territory, which is well and good. And, in fairness, six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years (Iowa was sliding into familiar seven seed territory last year) is an achievement. But with a roster featuring Iowa’s all-time leading scorer, two other 1000-point scorers, and a wealth of complementary pieces, this was the season to end those inglorious streaks: 22 years since Iowa’s last Sweet 16 appearance; 33 years since the Hawkeyes’ last Elite Eight appearance; 40 years since our last Big Ten crown and Final Four run.
Instead, 2020 served as the latest chapter in the familiar Hawkeye book, Good But Not Quite Good Enough. And despite this team’s laundry list of accomplishments (14 B1G wins, highest NCAA tourney seed in thirty years, triple crowning the hated Badgers, all things Luka Garza), its unceremonious March flameout will be the lasting, defining memory. The wait for Iowa basketball to have a Sweet ending to a season continues.