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Leistikow: 10 Big Ten Tournament thoughts, including possible Iowa rematches with Wisconsin, Illinois

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By the time the Iowa Hawkeye men tip off for their Friday game at around 8 p.m. CT inside the spacious confines of Lucas Oil Stadium, nine of the 14 teams competing in the Big Ten Conference Tournament will already have been eliminated. That’s quite a luxury.

Yet that free pass to the final five means if the Hawkeyes want to accomplish their goal of winning the program’s first conference tournament championship since 2006, they’ll need to win three games against some of the country’s best competition in a dizzying span of about 44½ hours.

With that backdrop, let’s examine 10 thoughts ahead of the week in Indianapolis.

1. Fran McCaffery has proven he can win three games in three days.

He did it in each of his final three years at Siena (2008, 2009, 2010) to win Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles. In his final year (the one before he was hired at Iowa), McCaffery pointed out, Siena actually trailed by double digits in all three games before rallying to win each.

In other words: Expect adversity.

“It's not going to go perfectly. We're playing too many good teams,” McCaffery said. “It's staying the course with what got us to the point where we are; our improved defense, our ability to share the ball (and) understand how to utilize Luka (Garza) with great point guard play.”

Just one win would mark some notable history for McCaffery. In nine previous Big Ten Tournaments (the 10th was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), he’s yet to make it to a Saturday semifinal. His 11th team is well-positioned to break that drought.

More: Inside the defensive transformation that has Iowa basketball poised for a postseason run

2. With a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament virtually locked up, what’s Iowa playing for?

Garza left no doubt in interviews this week that the Hawkeyes have everything to play for. This Big Ten Tournament chance was one of the top reasons he, Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon returned to school for another year.

Winning this particular tournament, in Garza’s mind, would be a significant achievement considering four of the nation’s top seven teams (per reside in the Big Ten.

“We're playing it for a whole lot. Obviously, we know that the 2 seed is probably what we’re going to get (in the NCAAs),” Garza said. “But that's not something that's going to make us not play any harder. We’re going to play as hard as we can. Because we want to win a Big Ten championship as much as we want to win a national championship.”

A thought to consider: For once, Iowa doesn't come to the Big Ten Tournament with its postseason fate teetering. The Hawkeyes had spectacular first-round flameouts vs. No. 13 and 12 seeds in 2014 and 2016, respectively, when those once-promising seasons were already spiraling. In 2017, the Hawkeyes faced win-and-in pressure for the NCAA Tournament and got blown out by No. 10 seed Indiana.

Maybe they’ll play free and easy without the pressure that is sometimes associated with this week.

3. Keep an eye on Garza’s scoring column this weekend; Bohannon’s, too.

With every point, Garza adds to his Iowa scoring record. At 2,201 career points, he’s moved up to No. 13 on the Big Ten’s all-time scoring list. With just 17 points Friday (Garza's per-game average is 23.8), he would move past Wisconsin’s Alando Tucker for the No. 9 spot and become the highest-scoring Big Ten player of this century. With 22 points, he would surpass Michigan’s Gary Grant for No. 8.

Garza enters the weekend needing 64 points to surpass Michigan State’s Steve Smith for No. 7 in conference history.

As for Bohannon, he needs 18 points to move past Jess Settles (1,611 points at Iowa) for No. 10 on Iowa’s all-time scoring list. The fifth-year senior guard from Marion has 355 career 3-pointers, 19 shy of the all-time Big Ten record. While it is highly unlikely he gets there this weekend, a run to the championship game could get him within striking distance of Jon Diebler’s record of 374.

4. Which opponent — Wisconsin or Penn State — is better for Iowa?

(Note: This debate assumes No. 14 seed Nebraska isn’t winning two games in two days.)

The obvious answer would seem to be 11th-seeded Penn State, considering that if the Nittany Lions beat Nebraska and then No. 6 seed Wisconsin, it would be playing with tired legs (third game in three days) vs. third-seeded Iowa. Penn State has quick guards, which caused Iowa problems in a 74-68 Hawkeye win on Feb. 21, but Iowa’s increased reliance on Joe Toussaint of late should help counter that. Iowa’s gotten smaller since the season-ending loss of Jack Nunge, and Penn State is one of the smallest teams in the Big Ten.

However, if we’re talking sheer basketball drama, bring on the Badgers for Round 3. Between Brad Davison’s hook-and-hold controversy, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard’s officiating rant from Iowa’s 77-73 win Sunday AND the well-documented motivation for Bohannon against the Badgers, it wouldn’t take much in Indy to set off more fireworks between these border rivals.

If Wieskamp plays Friday (more on that momentarily), Wisconsin is a great matchup for Iowa. In 41 minutes against the Badgers this season, Wieskamp is 11-for-14 from the floor (including 7-for-8 from 3-point range!) with a plus-36 rating.

5. Something Wieskamp said on Jan. 29 still resonates.

After the Hawkeyes’ 80-75 loss at Illinois, Wieskamp was frustrated. The Muscatine native grew up on the Illinois border, and this is an opponent he enjoys facing … and beating. The Hawkeyes had their chances Jan. 29 in Champaign despite not having CJ Fredrick and late-game officiating controversy.

“To only get them once and to lose in that fashion is definitely disappointing,” Wieskamp said then. “I just hope we get the opportunity to play them in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Each team needs to win once for that rematch to occur.

Wieskamp's quote also got me thinking: If he can’t go Friday with his sprained right ankle, might he make a comeback to face the Illini on Saturday?

"Joe's probably one of the toughest guys I've ever been around," Fredrick said. "So I know he's going to be all right."

Wieskamp’s status is a huge story to follow. With the second-team all-Big Ten wing, Iowa is a bona fide threat to cut down the nets in Indy. Bohannon said on his podcast Monday that he thought Wieskamp would be ready by Friday. McCaffery didn't sound as confident, noting that Wieskamp didn’t practice Tuesday.

“If he's not at or near 100 percent, then we might hold him,” McCaffery said. “We're going to do what's in the best interest of the student-athlete, bottom line.”

6. Fredrick was confident that he could play back-to-back games, if Iowa wins Friday.

The sophomore guard has missed four games and the second halves of two others this season with foot and ankle injuries. His health status is often not known until about 90 minutes before tip-off. He’s been a “game-time decision” several times, but he has played at least 27 minutes in five of Iowa's last six outings.

“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the goal,” Fredrick said of playing back-to-back. (If Iowa wins, it would play at approximately 2:30 p.m. Saturday.) “That's how I've been in the training staff with (trainer Brad Floy) every day. Just getting my foot, getting my body ready for the Big Ten Tournament, the NCAA Tournament.”

If Wieskamp (who has never missed a game in his Iowa career) can’t go, Fredrick will need to be more aggressive in looking for his offense. He is shooting 50% from 3-point range this season but has attempted only 18 shots in Iowa's last four games.

7. What will McCaffery do with Garza if he gets in foul trouble?

When Garza got his second foul at Indiana on Feb. 7 with Iowa leading, 23-11, McCaffery kept his all-American big man on the bench for the final 12:30 of the first half. That proved to be a regrettable decision, as Iowa blew its lead and eventually lost the game.

It would be hard to imagine McCaffery making the same choice again. With Nunge out, Garza’s backup at the “5” position is limited to 6-foot-8 freshman Keegan Murray, who is a more natural “4.” Unless Iowa’s up by 20-plus points, Garza would likely get a longer leash of trust to stay on the court and stay out of further foul trouble.

That said, McCaffery might dig deeper into his bench if either Garza or Murray encounters foul trouble. And that might mean more action for Kris Murray, Keegan’s equally sized twin brother who has a total of eight points in 38 minutes this season. Keegan reported that Kris has been playing excellent of late, going 11-for-13 from the floor in a recent practice.

“I just tell him to stay right before every game, because you never know what could happen,” Keegan Murray said. “I think he’ll be ready if he gets that chance.”

8. My dark-horse pick in Indianapolis: Purdue.

The fourth-seeded Boilermakers have won five in a row and will certainly enjoy the short commute (69.1 miles) from Mackey Arena to Lucas Oil Stadium. For those who haven’t watched much of Purdue (a team Iowa hasn’t seen since Dec. 22), it’s playing terrific defense (no opponent has scored more than 72 in 2021) and is getting great play from 7-foot-4 freshman Zach Edey.

It’ll be fascinating if Purdue can get to the semifinals against Michigan, how Edey fares against Michigan 7-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson.

Still, I think second-seeded Illinois is the team to beat this week.

9. Scoreboard-watching? Here are a few things to monitor from Iowa’s perspective.

As mentioned, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament seems likely. Iowa entered Wednesday at No. 5 in the NCAA NET and a matchup against either Wisconsin (NET 26) or Penn State (NET 40) would qualify as a Quad 1 game (top-50 neutral court). So, even a loss would keep the Hawkeyes in great shape.

The consensus No. 1 line of the NCAAs seems safe with Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan and Illinois.

The current No. 2 line, from Alabama, Iowa, Ohio State and Houston.

Could any No. 3s jump to the 2 line? Maybe Arkansas, if it runs the table in the SEC Tournament. Maybe West Virginia or Kansas, if either does the same in the Big 12. 

If those things happen and Houston wins the American Athletic Conference Tournament and Ohio State makes a run in Indianapolis and Iowa loses in the quarterfinals, that might present a scenario in which the Hawkeyes drop to a 3.

The Selection Show airs at 5 p.m. CT Sunday on CBS.

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10. A final thought of full-circle perspective.

One year ago Friday, Hawkeye players were wandering the streets of downtown Indianapolis, stunned and disappointed over the sudden cancellation of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. These have been 365 long days, to be sure. But consider it a victory they’ve gotten to this point.

Just over six months ago (when Big Ten football was on life support), it seemed tenuous that there would be a college basketball season at all. But the Hawkeyes didn’t miss any of their 27 scheduled games, and now they get a shot to finish a mission more than a year in the making.

They've packed for four weeks. They’re not coming back to Iowa City until they lose in the NCAA Tournament or cut down the nets April 5 in Lucas Oil Stadium. Whatever happens this week and in the weeks to come, take a moment to breathe in and appreciate the return of March Madness.

Hawkeye players are certainly not taking this opportunity for granted.

“(Last year’s cancellations) provided our whole team with a lot of motivation going into this year,” Garza said, “to make sure that once we get back to Indy, we’re going to make it count. That we’re going to do something special.”

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.