As most coaches will tell you, a 40-minute game or a 20-minute half is a big idea to wrap your head around. You're better off breaking the game -- or half -- down into more manageable chunks, say 4-5 minutes long. Focus on doing well in that chunk, then move on to the next one. Don't worry about trying to "win the half" -- if you win enough of the smaller chunks, the bigger goal will take care of itself.
The Big Ten's bloated 20-game conference schedule lends itself to the same analysis, I think. So let's break down Iowa's season to date (and the upcoming slate) into some more manageable units and take a look at things.
CHUNK ONE: 1-3 (L vs Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue; W vs Nebraska)
This is the most awkward unit to look at by far, since these four Big Ten games were sandwiched around five non-conference games. It's hard to find a lot of continuity when there was a 30-day gap between games two (@MSU) and three (@Purdue), you know? That said... while Iowa looked good to very good in most of those non-conference games (their 98-84 rout of Iowa State remains one of their best wins of the season), it was easy to forget that when Iowa went to Purdue and got blasted in a fashion similar to the way they got blasted at Michigan State in December. At that point Iowa was 0-3 in the Big Ten, with two ugly blowout losses, and things did not look good for Iowa significantly improving upon last year's horrendous Big Ten campaign. A win over Nebraska (who actually seemed pretty good at the time -- they were ranked #24!) stopped the bleeding, but it didn't markedly change the perception around this team.
CHUNK TWO: 4-0 (W vs Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois)
With the benefit of hindsight, though, we can acknowledge that that win over Nebraska helped Iowa get right and kicked off one of their best stretches of the season. They won all four games in this chunk, including a pair of road wins over Northwestern and Penn State. Northwestern and Penn State, as it turns out, are not all that good this year and have sunk to the bottom of the league rankings (although Penn State remains one of the friskiest one-conference win teams in recent memory; eight of their 11 losses have come by seven points or less and a ninth loss came in OT). Still, Iowa needed to prove that they could win on the road and they did that in those two games (they also won both games without Tyler Cook, who was nursing an injury). Those two road wins were paired with a solid home win over Ohio State and a rout over Illinois that featured one of Iowa's best offensive performances ever. This chunk showed the growth Iowa had made from last season's debacle. Iowa won four Big Ten games all season last year; they equaled that in 11 days of work this year and surpassed four total league wins by January 20.
CHUNK THREE: 2-2 (L vs Michigan State, Minnesota; W vs Michigan, Indiana)
On paper, this looked like the most challenging stretch of Iowa's schedule and in a contained space -- four games in 15 days, including two games against Michigan and Michigan State, then the two best teams in the Big Ten -- it was. In hindsight, it looks like the hardest part of Iowa's schedule might have been the beginning -- opening up with Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Purdue (the latter two on the road, in two of the Big Ten's most difficult arenas to win at) was pretty brutal, although the degree of difficulty there is impacted by the fact that there was a month-long gap between the Michigan State and Purdue games.
This chunk started with a heartbreaker, as Iowa found a way to suffer yet another painful loss against Michigan State, this time pairing a very good first half with an abysmal second half (lowlighted by a 24-2 run Sparty went on to seize control of the game). One loss turned into two after Iowa's bad defensive habits reared their ugly heads in a shootout loss at Minnesota. But while past Iowa teams might have allowed those two losses to snowball and to let this season go fully sideways, this team didn't -- it stopped the bleeding in emphatic fashion with a blowout win over #5 Michigan a week ago, then beat Indiana in Bloomington last night. A 2-2 result feels like a pretty solid outcome for this chunk of games for Iowa, even with the knowledge that Iowa had opportunities to win the Michigan State and Minnesota games.
CHUNK FOUR: TBD (Northwestern, at Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana)
In contrast to the previous chunk, on paper this looks like the easiest four-game stretch on Iowa's schedule this season. Iowa gets three home games (where they're 11-2 so far) and only one of these four games is against a high-quality opponent: Maryland. The Terps are 18-6 overall, 9-4 in the Big Ten, and while they've lost three of their last five Big Ten games, two of those games were at Michigan State and Wisconsin (not easy places to win at) and the third was a strange neutral site game with Illinois. They're ranked 18th in the current KenPom rankings and they should be the most difficult opponent Iowa faces the rest of the way (minus Wisconsin). Indiana, Rutgers, and Northwestern are battling to avoid playing on Wednesday at the Big Ten Tournament; they're currently ninth, 11th, and 12th in the league, respectively and have combined to go 11-24 in the Big Ten. Iowa should absolutely not overlook anyone in the Big Ten this year -- the league's worst team (by KenPom ranking) is Rutgers at #95, but they're still 4-8 in the league with wins over Ohio State, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State -- but they're going to favored to win all of those games (right now KenPom has them at 81% to beat Northwestern, 67% to win at Rutgers, and 73% to beat Indiana again). The goal for this chunk? Take care of business and avoid bad losses.
CHUNK FIVE: TBD (at Ohio State, Rutgers, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska)
That's especially key because Iowa's closing stretch is a bit challenging. Granted, it could be much worse -- only Wisconsin is currently in the top half of the league standings -- but having three of the final four games on the road isn't ideal. Although after last night's win Iowa has won three of their last four road games, too. Iowa needs to take care of the lone home game against Rutgers; Iowa's postseason resume is currently pretty blemish-free, but a home loss to Rutgers would add an unwelcome bit of ugliness to that resume. Getting revenge on Wisconsin would be immensely satisfying (beating them always is, especially in Madison) and would also be a third big result on Iowa's resume next to the wins over Michigan and Iowa State. Assuming that doesn't happen, though, it would be good for Iowa to split the road games at Ohio State and Nebraska; a win in one of those games with a win over Rutgers at home would give Iowa a 2-2 mark here, which seems respectable.
If Iowa does that, they could definitely be looking at an overall record around 24-7 or 23-8, which would be absolutely phenomenal. It would be nice if Iowa's could spend the final weeks of February and the first few weeks of March not stressing over the bubble and simply making the NCAA Tournament, but rather improving their seed in the NCAA Tournament. We can definitely entertain those thoughts -- and probably even a top 5 or 6 seed -- with a 6-2 or 7-1 finish to the regular season. If Iowa goes 5-3, 4-4 or (gulp) worse, then we could be back in familiar bubble territory. But while we keep an eye on the big picture, the focus is on the smaller, more manageable chunks. Next up: Northwestern at home. Time to sweep the 'Cats this season.