INDIANAPOLIS -- Iowa isn't an NCAA tournament bubble team. Iowa just looks very much like an NCAA tournament bubble team, in full slouch as March revs up, entering the Big Ten tournament and exiting immediately and indifferently. The Hawkeyes lost to Northwestern 67-62 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday, a team that it met twice before and beat twice by 26 points. The only thing saving them from a precipitous drop into postseason peril is that other teams in worse condition are losing pretty much just as badly.
The issue for the Hawkeyes is that there's an NCAA tournament to play and games to win -- and Iowa simply doesn't look very capable of winning games. It's six losses in seven tries now for a team that once was a Big Ten title contender. The alarms would be going off, but they're broken. A bad seed and a bad outlook in the brackets awaits.
“There's no magic formula,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “You just have to keep working. What we've said over these last two weeks, you work your way out of things like this. You don't talk your way out of it, you don't fake your way out of it. We'll stay positive with one another. You can't start pointing fingers and blaming one another.”
There's enough blame to spread around anyway. Iowa had it the way it wanted it in two previous meetings with Northwestern, scoring 93 and 76 points, respectively, in two January wins. But that wasn't the case on Thursday night. Often enough during the second half, the Hawkeyes ran offense to another missed shot and a disgruntled audience barked out “Wake up!” They never did, shooting 32.3 percent overall and 6-of-24 from three-point range. They missed all nine long-range attempts after halftime. In one stretch, Northwestern went five minutes without a point. Iowa scored just six points in that time, even as the Wildcats had served up the game to be taken.
It was a particularly painful way to lose, if only because the Hawkeyes had been built to win with the very attack that failed it Thursday. And it was, by far, the worst offensive showing in the current slide; Iowa's worst shooting night in the previous five losses was a 44.4 percent showing against Illinois on March 8.
It was the sort of night in which Northwestern's Dave Sobolewski would score 10 points and hit two confident, shot clock-beating three-pointers in the second half to wilt Iowa's confidence. This was the same Dave Sobolewski who totaled 19 points across the entirety of Big Ten play, the same one who hit a total of two three-pointers during 18 conference games. Thursday night, the Wildcats piled up 11 three-pointers and shot 52.3 percent overall. They shot 37.5 percent during the Big Ten season.
What went wrong for Iowa? A little bit of everything, really.
“Early in the season we were defending a lot better,” Iowa forward Roy Devyn Marble said. “Throughout games we've given up too many quality shots to opponents and they've been making them. Everyone's a Division I player. If you give them open shots, they're going to knock them down.”
Or, as forward Jarrod Uthoff put it bluntly: “Defensive intensity. We need to bring it more.”
It isn't technically too late do to anything, but realistically, it may be. Iowa is a 20-12 team with a 9-9 conference record and a first-round nosedive in its league tournament. Per RealTimeRPI.com, the Hawkeyes were 52nd in the nation before the Northwestern debacle. The damage inflicted on the tournament resume is irreparable and their seeding likely will reflect it. And that means a tougher road for a team already fishtailing all over the place.
“When you're losing,” McCaffery said, “it's never one thing.” That's the problem. It's a lot of things, without much time at all to fix them. But thanks to bubbles bursting for the likes of Arkansas and St. John's, a spot still awaits Iowa in the NCAA tournament next week. The Hawkeyes can approach Selection Sunday without any nerves thanks to other teams being just as bad at the wrong time as they were. As for what comes after? With no end to the slide in sight, there are plenty of reasons to worry.