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Leistikow: Hawkeyes need to treat Wisconsin finale like Big Ten Tournament opener

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Austin Ash scored on a floating jump shot. Fellow walk-on Michael Baer knocked down a turnaround jumper. And well-liked freshman Josh Ogundele threw down a rim-rattling dunk, capping Iowa’s feelgood final 2½ minutes of a 102-64 throttling of visiting Nebraska on Thursday night.

The Hawkeyes’ highest point total in a Big Ten Conference game in 26 years was complete, as in complete domination. On the other sideline, Nebraska’s Fred Hoiberg was handed his most lopsided loss of 99 in his seven years as a college head coach.

“(Iowa's) a team that if you don’t play well, they can embarrass you,” the former Iowa State player and coach said. “And that’s exactly what happened (Thursday).”

Other than another annoying injury to CJ Fredrick (we’ll get to that momentarily), this night couldn’t have gone much better for the Hawkeyes.

Because while Sunday against Wisconsin will officially mark Iowa’s regular-season finale, the Hawkeyes demonstrated Thursday that they’ve already transitioned to postseason mode.

More: Jordan Bohannon helps Iowa bury Nebraska early, as Patrick McCaffery springs to life late

More: No. 8 Iowa 102, Nebraska 64: Here's what we learned

They could’ve come out flat, on the heels of their best win of the season — and, in my opinion, of the Fran McCaffery era — Sunday at Ohio State. Instead, against the Big Ten’s last-place team, they came out on a mission. They led 17-5 after 5½ minutes, 29-13 after 12 minutes and 48-26 by halftime.

It seemed like a good omen for what Iowa hopes is the first of many games in March.

“We’re going to play, and we’re going to beat whoever shows up in front of us,” said freshman Patrick McCaffery, who poured in a career-high 19 points off the bench. “That’s kind of been our mentality all year.”

Patrick McCaffery’s second-half barrage — he scored 13 of his points in a span of 3:45, helping extend Iowa’s lead from 77-50 to 94-58 — was among the reasons Iowa’s starting five could relax.

Connor McCaffery (eight assists) didn’t play the final 9:59.

Jordan Bohannon (eight 3-pointers, 26 points) didn’t play the final 11:35; if he would have, he could’ve tied or broken Chris Kingsbury’s school record for 3s in a game (nine).

Usual catalysts Luka Garza (14 points) and Joe Wieskamp (11 points) didn’t play in the final 13:31.

And Fredrick … he didn’t play the final 25:35, albeit not by choice.

Fredrick was gripping his right lower leg in pain after tumbling to the ground late in the first half. After a trip to the trainer’s room, he returned to the bench, but he did not return to action. Fran McCaffery didn’t deem it wise to push Fredrick back into action, not with his top-10 team fully in control.

“He probably would have said he wanted to go. I’m not sure he was ready to go,” McCaffery said. “He’s a pretty tough kid, he would’ve pushed through, but he was sore. He was hurt.”

As long as Fredrick won’t reaggravate anything Sunday against Wisconsin, though, the guess here is he’ll try to take the floor.

Because this one vs. the Badgers is a de facto postseason game for the Hawkeyes, and they need everyone in their core eight-man rotation.

Win, and they’re guaranteed to be the No. 3 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. That means the Hawkeyes would be the last of 14 Big Ten teams to take the court at Lucas Oil Stadium, at roughly 8 p.m. CT Friday in a quarterfinal. That’d mean four-plus days off for Fredrick and his friends to rest and prepare.

Lose, and they don’t get help Saturday? Then the Hawkeyes would be the No. 5 seed and be relegated to a Thursday-afternoon game in Indy, with two wins needed just to advance to a semifinal against (probably) top-seeded Michigan. The other side of the bracket, with a free pass to Friday, is where the Hawkeyes would rather be.

Bohannon, the fifth-year senior and oldest player on the team, understands the big-picture ramifications.

“I think knowing what we have at stake and the opportunity we have at hand, we can solidify ourselves as one of the best teams in the country going into the tournament,” Bohannon said. “That’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time at Iowa.”

Yes, win Sunday’s 11:30 a.m., Fox-televised game vs. the Badgers … and not only are the Hawkeyes (19-7 overall, 13-6 Big Ten) well-positioned for the conference tournament, they’d be in really, really good shape to hold onto what’s projected to be a No. 2 seed in the all-important NCAA Tournament.

The Hawkeyes haven’t been a 2 seed in the NCAAs since 1987, the last time they made the Elite Eight.

How big is it to be a 2 seed? Since 1985, 2 seeds have a 132-8 record in the first round (94% win probability), then 89-43 in the second round (67%) and 64-25 in the third round (72%). Those are encouraging percentages to think about, considering we’re talking about a program that hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 1999 or a Final Four since 1980.

Bohannon is proud of the fact that this team is in elite conversation. When he arrived, the Hawkeyes were coming off their best two seasons under McCaffery — both of which ended in the second round, with losses as a 7 seed against a 2 seed.

“Now people are debating whether we’re a 1, 2 or 3 seed,” Bohannon said.

A loss Sunday to a sliding Wisconsin team that has lost four of its last five games, and the Hawkeyes could be flirting with that 3 line in the NCAAs. No. 3 seeds that are fortunate enough to make the Sweet 16 have a 36-38 record (49%) in their games to get to the Elite Eight. It’s simply a statistically tougher path than a 2.

Every win matters. Thursday’s performance against Nebraska was a key, convincing step.

“We need to continue to put ourselves in a position to make a long run in the tournament,” Bohannon said, “and this was a big game for that.”

More: NCAA Tournament bracketology: Can Iowa steal a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday?

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.