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Leistikow: Hawkeyes get their No. 2 seed, but the road to the Final Four is difficult


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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sunday afternoon marked a historic moment for Iowa basketball, with the Hawkeyes matching their highest-ever seed in an NCAA Tournament bracket.

When the number “2” was placed alongside Iowa’s name in the West Region, Fran McCaffery’s 2021 Hawkeyes officially joined Tom Davis’ 1987 team in earning a No. 2 seed. 

Sunday's reveal, as the Hawkeyes watched the CBS selection-show broadcast from a conference room in their downtown Indianapolis hotel, served as a justifiably proud moment.

“Everyone was just really, really excited, especially to see ourselves as a 2 seed," all-American center Luka Garza said after learning his team would face No. 15 seed Grand Canyon in Saturday's first round. The game will tip off at 5:25 p.m. CT at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, a 6,500-seat arena in Indianapolis, and be televised on CBS. "This year in the Big Ten, to be able to win the games we won, was huge to put ourselves in that position.”

Just like 34 years ago, when Iowa was also slotted in the West Region, a 2 seed commends a job well done during the regular season.

But reflecting on that 1987 team, one that is remembered fondly by fans as being Iowa's most recent team to reach an Elite Eight, is a fast and humbling reminder that nothing will be easy … even as a 2 seed.

In the round of 32 that year inside Arizona’s McKale Center, the Hawkeyes were taken to the wire by seventh-seeded UTEP, which had a young sophomore named Tim Hardaway. Iowa trailed by seven points with eight minutes to go but rallied and held on for a heart-pounding, 84-82 victory.

Then in the Sweet 16, the Hawkeyes trailed sixth-seeded Oklahoma by 16 points but again staged a rally — and needed a final-minute B.J. Armstrong 3-pointer and a Kevin Gamble blocked shot just to force overtime. Then, it was Gamble’s smooth 3 from the top of the Seattle Kingdome key with 3 seconds to go that delivered a thrilling, but harrowing, 93-91 Hawkeye win.

(Iowa would lose in heartbreaking fashion two days later to UNLV, but let’s not delve any further into those haunting memories.)

And while the Hawkeyes did open their NCAA Tournament in 1987 without much drama, 99-76 over 15th-seeded Santa Clara, it is worth mentioning that a No. 15 has upset a No. 2 eight times since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The first occurrence was Richmond over Syracuse in 1991; the most recent was Middle Tennessee over Michigan State in 2016. Of course, Iowa State is on this dubious list, as well, with its shocking 2001 loss to Hampton.

So, before getting too caught up in the possible second-round opponent — seventh-seeded Oregon or 10th-seeded VCU — Iowa knows it needs to have its full focus on the Antelopes, who are coached by Bryce Drew and won the Western Athletic Conference. 

A few things other things to know about Grand Canyon: It plays at one of the slowest paces in college basketball (No. 314 in KenPom.com's adjusted tempo). The Antelopes have held three of their last four opponents to 59 points or fewer. And its leading scorer is a 7-foot, 270-pound senior center from Denmark named Asbjorn Midtgaard.

The Wichita State transfer (14.0 points, 9.9 rebounds per game) will certainly have Garza's full attention. 

The Hawkeyes’ stated goal since Garza announced his return for his senior season has been winning a national championship. That’ll take six wins, but the only way to get to six is to start with one.

The second order of business is getting to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 1999. Then, the first Elite Eight since 1987. And then the first Final Four since 1980.

“(We're) just locking in and realizing Grand Canyon is the team we have to beat to move on," Iowa's Joe Wieskamp said. "That should be our only focus right now. We’re not worried about who we play in the second round, and so forth.”

While the players can't look ahead, we can. 

A possible matchup in the second round with the Pacific-12 regular-season champion, against a Dana Altman-coached team that got stronger down the stretch, would be no picnic.

And if the Hawkeyes can get back to their first Sweet 16 in 22 years, perhaps a matchup with No. 3 seed Kansas would await. The Jayhawks had won eight of their last nine games until withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament over a positive COVID-19 test.

Atop the West bracket is No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. Iowa didn't shoot the ball well in a 99-88 loss to the Bulldogs on Dec. 19 in Sioux Falls. A possible rematch would certainly rekindle feelings of the 1987 clash between high-octane offenses from Iowa and UNLV with a shot at the Final Four.

Recent clutch moments down the stretch against Wisconsin offer encouragement that the veteran Hawkeyes can survive and advance. As history shows, there will be many moments ahead that they'll need to survive on the road they hope leads to the Final Four.

“We can beat anybody. We’ve beaten some good teams,” Garza said. “We set those goals for a reason. And we’re going to try to achieve them.”

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.