What If Iowa Goes Undefeated in the Non-Conference?

By Patrick Vint on December 11, 2018 at 8:00 am
Throw your hands in the air
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With Thursday night's win over Iowa State, the Iowa Hawkeyes are, sort of remarkably, just four wins away from a perfect non-conference record.  Iowa still has games against UNI, Western Carolina, Savannah State and Bryant on the schedule.  While UNI is traditionally a difficult draw for the Hawkeyes, this is not exactly a vintage Northern Iowa squad.  The Panthers are 4-5 on the season, and two of their four wins are against non-Division I teams; they beat Old Dominion by a point, then lost to the same Old Dominion squad by seven points just a few days later.  Iowa's other three non-conference opponents all have Kenpom rankings of 300 or better, and Iowa is predicted to beat all of them by more than twenty points.  At least according to Kenpom, Iowa has an 83 percent chance of winning all four.

If Iowa is able to pull off four wins before the new year and post a perfect 11-0 non-conference record, the Hawkeyes will be doing something that Fran McCaffery has never done at Iowa.  McCaffery has never lost fewer than two non-conference games in a season at Iowa.  Obviously, Todd Lickliter never put up an undefeated non-conference season.  Steve Alford only lost one non-conference game in the 2004-05 season (against then-No. 1 North Carolina) but never went undefeated.  The best Iowa team of this millennium, the 2005-06 squad, lost three non-conference games against Texas, Iowa State and UNI.  

You have to travel back to the days of Dr. Tom Davis to find the last time Iowa went undefeated in non-conference play, and not even late-period Dr. Tom.  His 1992-93 team was undefeated entering Big Ten play, but lost a mid-January game against Duke.  The 1988-89 Hawkeyes lost the final of a three-day Christmas holiday tournament in Hawaii and won everything else.

No, if you're going to find the last Iowa basketball team to post an undefeated non-conference record, you have to travel back in time to arguably the greatest Iowa basketball team ever: 1986-87.  That team, inherited by Davis from recruiter nonpareil George Raveling, finished the season in the Elite Eight after racking up thirty wins and a 14-4 Big Ten record in probably the most difficult Big Ten season ever.  That team hit No. 1 in the nation in late January by winning its first eighteen games, and would have played in the Final Four were it not for a sixteen-point second-half comeback by UNLV.  That team is why I am an Iowa fan.

That wasn't the only team to beat all its non-conference opponents, though.  Lute Olson did it in 1979-80, winning all eight out-of-conference games before posting a rather pedestrian 10-8 Big Ten record and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  Of course, that season is not remembered for the non-conference regular season wins or the Big Ten finish, but as the last season where Iowa went to the Final Four.

There were other Iowa teams to run the non-conference table.  The 1951-52 Bucky O'Connor Hawkeyes did it, and finished the season ranked No. 7 with a 19-3 record.  Pops Harrison did it four years in a row, from 1944-48, winning a share of the national championship in 1944-45.  But those were teams from the cro-magnon days of college basketball.  The 1951-52 team went 19-3 and didn't make the NCAA Tournament.  The 1944-45 team played just six non-conference games.

If you're looking for a recent historical precedent for what we're now expecting, you have two choices.  They are the last two Iowa teams to make it to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament, probably the two most consequential Iowa basketball seasons of the last sixty years.  And if the 2018-19 Hawkeyes are going to follow that path, we're in for something special.

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