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Leistikow: Iowa's gritty win over Wisconsin buys time for Joe Wieskamp's ankle injury to heal


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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The last time Iowa played in a Final Four game, 41 years ago, Ronnie Lester scored the Hawkeyes’ first 10 points against Louisville. It was the type of game where it was easy to think that with Lester carrying the team like that, anything was possible.

Then as seasoned or well-versed Hawkeye fans know, Lester crashed to the floor with a knee (re)injury that took him out of the tournament. Iowa's national-championship hopes essentially died with that cruel twist of the knee and fate.

Flashbacks to 1980 felt vividly fresh Sunday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, as Joe Wieskamp was in a walking boot on Iowa’s bench during the second half of the Hawkeyes’ 77-73, regular-season ending victory against Wisconsin.

While the attention Sunday was on outgoing seniors and program all-timers in Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon, this was probably Wieskamp’s final game in Carver-Hawkeye. The junior from Muscatine with big-time pro upside could do no wrong in Sunday’s first half. He buried all five shots he attempted, including two high-arching 3-pointers, as Iowa roared to a 20-9 lead.

"He looked like he was on the way to 40 (points) today," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said afterward.

But as Wieskamp grimaced and clutched his right ankle from the hardwood, painful Hawkeye memories jumped to the surface. Because this Iowa team, with perhaps the most Final Four potential since 1987 (which ended in the Elite Eight), has enormous potential when Wieskamp is playing at an all-American level alongside the probable national player of the year in Garza.

Thankfully, the early feedback on Wieskamp's injury (deemed "lower right leg" by the university) is that it's "just" a sprained ankle. While the imagery looked bad, it doesn't seem like something that will keep him out of the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 19 or 20 (depending on the draw) in Indianapolis.

While Bohannon is not a doctor (though he has been in school almost long enough to get a medical degree), the fifth-year senior seemed optimistic that his fellow Iowan would be available for Friday's Big Ten Conference tournament opener against either Wisconsin or Penn State at approximately 8 p.m. CT — about 125 hours after Sunday's game concluded.

By earning the No. 3 seed in Indianapolis — and the coveted double bye, marking the first time Iowa has gotten a free pass to the quarterfinals since 2006 (when there were 11 teams) — the Hawkeyes will be the last of 14 Big Ten teams to take the court at Lucas Oil Stadium.  

"I think he’ll be ready to go, I don’t think that’ll be a question, knowing what we have at stake this year," Bohannon said. "… At the end of the day, I know he’s a warrior an will do whatever he can to get back on the floor. We have a couple more days to get ready, that’ll be huge for him."

But given the work the Hawkeyes did Sunday to grind out another Quadrant 1 victory … and given the Lester context, that you want your best players absolutely healthy for the NCAA Tournament … there should be little urgency to put Wieskamp's health at risk. That is something McCaffery acknowledged in his postgame remarks, saying that if Wieskamp is unavailable, freshman Keegan Murray and others would be asked to step up — as they did Sunday.

"We would not rush him back. I want him to play when he’s ready to play," McCaffery said. "We’ll see how long it will take for that to happen."

The great news is that Sunday's win should have buttoned up Iowa's case for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There is no room for upward mobility; the No. 1s are basically spoken for in Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Illinois, no matter what the Hawkeyes (20-7 overall, 14-6 Big Ten) do this week in Indianapolis. There is also little chance Iowa falls from the 2 line, finishing a clear third in the best league in the country.

"To close out the season winning seven of our last eight games, with a couple great road wins in there (and) to beat a couple ranked teams, that was huge for us," said Garza, after collecting 21 points and 16 rebounds in another workmanlike, winning performance. "In my opinion, that locks us into a 2 seed."

The Hawkeyes showed the type of resilience Sunday that further demonstrated that they shouldn't need to put Wieskamp in a risky position at the Big Ten Tournament.

Recall, in their first game without Jack Nunge (torn meniscus, out for the season), they played their best game of the season at Ohio State.

And Sunday, without Wieskamp for the final 28 minutes … they found a way again.

Trailing, 58-56, Iowa scored 21 points in the final 4:54, converting on 10 of its final 11 possessions.

Bohannon delivered big-time buckets. His three free throws, after smartly drawing a foul while shooting a 3-pointer with 34.3 seconds to go, capped a four-point possession that turned a 71-70 deficit into a 74-71 Iowa lead.

"We're just showing what we’re made of, and that’s how tough we are," Bohannon said. "We have so many guys on this team that don’t care about points, they just want to be out there to help this team win."

Guys like Garza, Bohannon, Wieskamp … they are going to want to win a Big Ten championship in their final March together. And Wieskamp is a tough competitor. He's going to want to play, if he can. We'll see what happens, but Iowa has earned the insurance to be smart.

One closing thought worth appreciating.

Iowa began No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll. On Monday, it'll likely hold firm at No. 5 in the final regular-season poll. There was zero Fran Fade with this team, which battled through injuries and maybe the toughest Big Ten gauntlet of this century, to match lofty preseason expectations. (Of note: Wisconsin, which finished 10-10 in Big Ten play and has lost five of six, was the preseason No. 7.)

“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished," McCaffery said, "and feel like we’re just getting started.”

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.