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Leistikow: After Big Ten exit, Hawkeyes eye NCAA Tournament opportunity to do 'something special'

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INDIANAPOLIS — This loss hurts, to be sure. There will be no Big Ten Conference championship for Iowa’s 2020-21 basketball season.

But the next loss … if there is one … that will be the one that really hurts.

The sixth-ranked Hawkeyes didn’t play their Saturday best at Lucas Oil Stadium, and that wasn’t going to cut it against a team that might be playing better than any college team, up to and including unbeaten Gonzaga. The third-ranked Illini dunked and dazzled their way to an 82-71 win.

They’re going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face Ohio State in Sunday’s title game. They were the better team Saturday.

Give the Hawkeyes credit, they could’ve withered against Illinois’ array of athletes and a whistle that wasn’t going their way. They got to within five, 74-69, on Jordan Bohannon’s 3-pointer with 3:42 to play. But that was their only made basket on nine tries in the final five minutes.

Iowa wasn’t good enough on this day.

“We couldn’t get a bounce. We couldn’t get a call," junior Connor McCaffery said after his latest 40-minute foray into the heated Iowa-Illinois rivalry. "At times, we really buckled down and fought through it. And then there’s just a couple possessions where we might’ve let it get to us a little bit, and that’s the difference in the game.

"It’s a five-point game with three minutes to go, bottom line. With everything that happened, we were right there."

A big-picture mindset was prevalent among the Hawkeye players and their 11th-year coach on the eve of Selection Sunday.

“I wouldn’t call it disappointment. I think we fought hard,” McCaffery added. “I think we’ve got to be proud of what we’ve done all season.

Connor McCaffery: Iowa-Illinois basketball matchup always 'going to be more physical'
Iowa's loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament was physical, but that's what the Hawkeyes expected, according to Connor McCaffery.
Adam Hensley, Hawk Central

“We’ll get healthy. That’s the main thing. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up.”

On that topic, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery revealed that he was seriously considering not playing starting guards Joe Wieskamp or CJ Fredrick at all this week.

“Not because we didn’t want to win the Big Ten Tournament,” McCaffery said, “but because I wanted to do what was right for them.”

That would have been a bold move, but with Wieskamp’s recently sprained ankle and Fredrick’s ongoing foot injury, the coach knew they needed to get healthy. He let them play two games in less than 24 hours, but now they can rest and regroup.

The Hawkeyes now have at least six days between games, maybe seven. And their next game will (likely) come against a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That was a nice consolation prize Saturday, too.

“I feel great. We’ve put ourselves in a damn good position to make something special,” said Bohannon, who scored 20 points. “… We’re going to be a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. We’re going to be in a great position to make a run.”

No matter the result Saturday, Iowa is a near certainty to collect a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the brackets are unveiled Sunday. That’s a testament to the program’s best regular season in 34 years, when Tom Davis’ first Hawkeye team wound up making a run to the Elite Eight as a 2 seed.

“We’ve got to be proud,” Connor McCaffery said, “of what we’ve done this season.”

Among the most widely predicted No. 15 seeds as of Saturday were Cleveland State, Drexel, Grand Canyon and Iona. Whatever opponent is revealed (the selection show starts at 5 p.m. CT on CBS), it’ll be the first non-Big Ten foe for the Hawkeyes in three months — dating to No. 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 19.

No opponent in the NCAA Tournament is a pushover, but there will presumably be some physical and mental relief to prepare for a team outside the rugged Big Ten, where on Saturday it seemed physical contact was more often encouraged than deemed a foul.

“There’s a little bit of a relief that the Big Ten is winding down,” Bohannon said after Iowa’s 22nd straight conference game. “We’re a little tired of playing each other.”

Afterward, the Hawkeyes were headed back to their downtown hotel rooms with a 21-8 record, two of those losses coming to the Illini who look like a national-title contender if not favorite. They soared for 10 dunks.

This was the first time that the season-ending knee injury to Jack Nunge really showed up. Nunge was terrific defensively in the last meeting vs. Illinois and helped hold Kofi Cockburn to nine points (most of them late) on 2-of-7 shooting. This round, Cockburn had 18 points by halftime and was too much for Luka Garza — not known for his elite defensive skills — alone to handle.

“We’re going to play a team like this, if not them, again in the tournament if we make it to where we want to make it to,” said Garza, who finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. "We’ve got to be better in those moments."

Players hoped to get a little time to walk around outdoors Saturday night. But for the most part, they understand the only time they’ll leave their rooms is for practices or games.

They are OK with it. They’re excited that the tournament is almost here, a spectacle that was wiped away one year ago by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saturday, ultimately, was one last learning experience for the Big Dance that’s about to begin.

If Iowa and Illinois meet for a third time, it would be in the Final Four. Bracketing policies will break up the top four Big Ten teams — Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State — into four different regions.

After the game, Illinois coach Brad Underwood pulled Garza aside and spoke with him in a move of clear respect. This was a heated game, but not one that will define the Hawkeyes' season.

That's the fun part. And it starts next Friday or Saturday, right back here in Indianapolis. Win two games as Iowa will be favored to do, and it'll reach the program's first Sweet 16 since 1999. 

The Big Ten grind is over. The payoff, Iowa hopes, comes next.

"Our league has prepared us and everybody else in this league well," Fran McCaffery said, "for what’s coming."

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.