The calendar has turned to February and as the conventional wisdom goes, that's bad news for Iowa basketball. But just how real is the "February fade," as Chad Leistikow called it earlier this week? Let's dig into Iowa's record in February under Fran.
Overall Iowa is 73-81 in the Big Ten under Fran after Sunday's loss at Minnesota. That's not great, but it's not terrible, either. Fran's B1G record by month:
*Regular season B1G games only. Obviously that March record would get much worse if we factored in Big Ten Tournament games (Iowa is 3-8 in the BTT under Fran).
In the aggregate, Iowa's February record isn't an outlier or egregiously bad -- it's not that far off from .500, which seems reasonable for a team that has hovered around the middle of the Big Ten overall during Fran's tenure. What about looking at things year-by-year?
The 2011 team was the least-talented one Fran has had since he arrived in Iowa City and Iowa certainly took its lumps in Year One under Fran. February was actually slightly better than January (1-7), though, and there were definite signs of improvement from Iowa -- they dropped two tight home games in OT against very good Wisconsin and Michigan teams that month. They broke through with a big home win over a very good Purdue team just a few weeks later.
One of Iowa's two February wins this season was a 20-point home win over Michigan State, which was as delightful as it was unexpected.
Iowa made its first postseason appearance in over five seasons in 2011-12, earning a trip to the NIT, and a big reason why was their play in February. Iowa ended January at 11-11 overall and 3-6 in Big Ten play and nowhere close to NIT consideration. After going 5-3 in February, though, they were 16-14 and in real contention. The pivotal stretch was a back-to-back stretch of home wins over good Indiana and Wisconsin teams.
February was relatively kind to Iowa again as they played their way onto the bubble. They won all three February home games and grabbed an away win over Penn State in Happy Valley. They had one fairly bad loss in February (losing to a lousy Nebraska team in Lincoln), but their main issue was not taking advantage of road opportunities this season: they opened February with a 3-point loss against Minnesota in The Barn and then lost by four to Wisconsin in 2OT in Madison a few days later. Either of those road wins would have been a great addition for Iowa's resume.
This was the start of the February fade narrative. Iowa began the year 16-4 and entered February at 16-5 after a heartbreaking 71-69 OT loss to Michigan State at the end of January. The swoon didn't happen right away, though -- Iowa won three of their first four games in February, including a lopsided home win over Michigan and road wins at Illinois and Penn State. But they ended February on a three game losing streak and went 1-2 in March; overall they ended the regular season by losing five of their final six games and then added to their misery by losing to a bad Northwestern team in the Big Ten Tournament.
As frustrating and painful as that skid was, though, it was also... somewhat understandable? Iowa's losing streak started with a close home loss against an excellent Wisconsin team (they went 30-8 and made the Final Four). Then they dropped two fairly close road games to decent opponents (Minnesota and Indiana) in the span of three days. Their regular season skid ended with a road loss to Michigan State (there's a shocker) and a narrow home loss to Illinois. The Illinois loss is by far the most inexcusable, though it was also Iowa's third game in seven days and their fifth game in 12 days.
A year later, Iowa flipped the "February fade" narrative on its head by going 4-2 in February as part of a six-game winning streak to end the regular season. That was the stretch where Aaron White took his game from "really good" to "damn near superhuman" and led Iowa to a a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament and their first NCAA Tournament win in almost 15 years. Iowa went 2-2 to start February, beating Michigan in Ann Arbor and Maryland in Iowa City before losing a close home game to Minnesota and suffering a sloppy close loss to Northwestern in OT. That loss seemed to light a fire under Iowa, though, as they went on their six-game winning streak after that defeat.
Of course, that winning streak was also fueled by some favorable scheduling. They got home games against bad Rutgers and Northwestern teams, as well as a home game with a decent Illinois team. They also had road games against a bad Nebraska team, an iffy Penn State, and a solid Indiana squad. The win at IU was easily the best of the bunch and credit to Iowa for taking full advantage of a fairly soft schedule (something which could come into play again this year).
Along with 2014, this is the other major evidence for the "February fade" narrative. Iowa got off to a great start that season (after an early season non-conference tournament hiccup, anyway) and were 17-4 entering February. As in 2014, Iowa actually started off February pretty well, winning three of their first four games. But they lost their final three games of the month, part of a stretch in which they lost five of their last seven (which became six of their last eight after yet another Big Ten Tournament loss).
There's no doubt that Iowa floundered big time to end the season in 2016. They lost to a bad Penn State team on the road, lost at home to a good, but not great Wisconsin team, and also lost away to a lousy Ohio State team. Given how well Iowa had played in December and January that year, those losses are pretty inexcusable. Several of Iowa's losses in their February fade were close (none was by more than eight points and three were by four points or less, which speaks to Iowa's poor record in close games under Fran, but that's a separate post), but when you think of a previously good Iowa team simply blowing up down the stretch, 2016 is rightly the first example that springs to mind.
Iowa went 3-3 in February in 2017 which, overall, doesn't look that bad. But the timing of the three-game losing streak probably dealt a serious blow to Iowa's NCAA Tournament aspirations. Iowa entered February at 13-10 and improved to 14-10 after a home win over Nebraska. Unfortunately, they lost their next three games: a 2OT road thriller against Minnesota, yet another loss to Michigan State in East Lansing, and a close loss at home against Illinois. None of those teams were bad (their respective KenPom rankings were 37, 40, and 66), but losing all three of those games dealt a real blow to Iowa's bubble hopes. Iowa responded well with four straight wins to end the regular season (which included wins over Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin teams that were as good or better than the teams they had just lost to in that three-game skid), but it wasn't enough to put them over the top and get an at-large bid.
Iowa was bad in February last year, which probably doesn't come as much surprise because they were pretty bad in every month last year; they simply weren't a very good team. Or, rather, they were a deeply flawed team: a very good offensive team that had an almost pathological aversion to playing defense. But they also played a tough schedule in February -- their first four opponents were against teams ranked in the KenPom Top 20 (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan). And while they lost their first six games in February, three of them were by four points or less, so they weren't getting blown out, which is more than you can say for a lot of their losses earlier in the season.
So where does that leave us? Overall Iowa hasn't been as bad in February as the popular narrative suggests (again, 27-30 overall). But they've also suffered significant losing streaks in February in four of the last five seasons. Meltdowns in 2014 and 2016 crushed Iowa's seed and nearly kept them out of the NCAA Tournament both years (and maybe did in 2014, depending on your feelings about the First Four games). And an ill-timed losing streak in 2017 hurt their NCAA Tournament momentum. On the other hand, they also posted key winning streaks in February in 2013 and 2015 (and, to a lesser degree, in 2017 as well), so their February history hasn't been all bad.
What about if we take a bigger look than just February results -- how does Iowa fare in the first half of the league schedule versus the second half of the league slate? Would you believe that they're better in the second half of league play? Iowa's 37-45 in the first half of the season in Big Ten games (first nine games 2011-2018, first 10 games this year) and 36-36 in the second half of the season against league competition. So while our mind may want us to think that Iowa has regularly collapsed in the second half of Big Ten play, the numbers don't quite bear that out.
And what about this year? Well, the good news is that the schedule looks reasonably friendly. Iowa has four home games (they're
undefeated 12-2 at CHA this year and overall Iowa is 46-32 at home under Fran, compared to 27-49 on the road) versus three road games in February. There aren't any truly terrible teams in the Big Ten this year (the lowest ranked Big Team via KenPom is Rutgers, at #90), but Iowa does manage to avoid the best of the best -- tonight's game against Michigan (KenPom #5) is Iowa's only game this month against the teams KenPom rates as the four best in the league (#4 Michigan State, #5 Michigan, #8 Purdue, #10 Wisconsin). Their toughest road games are at Indiana (currently riding a 7-game losing streak) and Ohio State (who's lost six of their last seven games). If Iowa trips up this month, it shouldn't be because they had to navigate a February league schedule loaded with land mines.
tl; dr -- Iowa's February record is better than you remember and they've had some very good memories during this month. But the evidence of February swoons has some credibility, too, so there's certainly reason for concern, too. Here's one final, likely meaningless, thought: of late, Iowa's worst February performances came in even-numbered years (2014, 2016, 2018). Their best performances came in odd-numbered years (2013, 2015, 2017). 2019 is, of course, an odd-numbered year. Let's hope for a little #OddYearMojo for the Hawkeyes.