IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) A surprise run to the top of the Big Ten standings was evidence that Iowa's once-dead program is on solid footing.
Yet another late-season collapse was proof that the Hawkeyes still have plenty of work to do.
Iowa reached its third straight NCAA Tournament for the first time in 23 years. But for the second time in three years, the Hawkeyes (22-11) closed out with a thud.
Iowa's only blowout loss came in its final game, an 87-68 loss to Villanova in the round of 32. The Hawkeyes closed the year with six defeats in eight games, mirroring a collapse in 2014.
''I'm very proud of my guys, the way we handled ourselves all season,'' senior guard Mike Gesell said. ''The season's a grind. There are a lot of ups and downs during the season, and we kept plugging along, kept working hard every day.''
The reality is that winning 22 games, earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and winning a first-round game as Iowa did over Temple on a buzzer beater from Adam Woodbury, would have been a perfectly acceptable season for most fans in November. But Iowa raised expectations with a brilliant stretch in January, only to let its supporters down yet again in March.
The Hawkeyes hardly looked like an NCAA Tournament team at first. They lost to Dayton and Notre Dame, and blew a 20-point lead in a brutal road defeat at Iowa State. But while most of its fans were focused on the Rose Bowl - also a crushing loss - the Hawkeyes soundly beat then-No. 1 Michigan State to open the Big Ten season. It was the first of seven straight wins as Iowa got off to its best league start in over four decades and reached as high as third in the national rankings.
The Hawkeyes then blew their shot at an outright Big Ten title, which Sweet 16-bound Indiana clinched in Iowa City, and lost to lowly Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament. The win over Temple, which was the second NCAA Tournament victory under sixth-year coach Fran McCaffery, was quickly forgotten once Iowa fell behind by 25 at halftime against Villanova on Sunday.
''There's a winning culture there that says a lot about the character of the individuals on that team. I think, if you possess that kind of character, then you have a real legitimate shot to advance in this tournament because that's what you need,'' McCaffery said of Villanova.
That's exactly what Iowa will be looking for next season.
The Hawkeyes will need to replace four starters in Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff, who despite some up and down moments was one of the best players in the country in 2015-16.
Junior Peter Jok has blossomed into a star, averaging 16.1 points a game while showing he can be a player can build around in 2016-17.
Walk-on Nicholas Baer had 15 points against the Wildcats, a performance that capped a surprisingly strong season. If Baer can continue to improve this off-season as much as he did in the last one, Iowa might have another star on its hands.
Frontcourt players Dom Uhl and Ahmad Wagner showed promise this season, and point guard Christian Williams emerged as a key reserve. Power forward Tyler Cook might be in the rotation as a freshman as well.
Still, Iowa has moved past the point where making the NCAA Tournament constitutes a good season. The Hawkeyes have set higher expectations in recent years.
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