It’s been a long dry spell, but the Iowa Hawkeyes appear back on track.
Their run-and-gun basketball team is averaging a blistering 90 points per game, and their 98-point outburst against Notre Dame on Tuesday was arguably the most impressive Big Ten win in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge that ended in a 6-6 deadlock for the second straight year.
The Hawkeyes are seven years overdue. They haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since losing to tiny Northwestern State in a first-round upset in 2006. They haven’t won an NCAA game since knocking off Creighton in 2001.
After seeing them defeat the Irish, my personal rating system has the Hawkeyes sweeping past 2013 NCAA runner-up Michigan (bring back Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway) and last season’s top-ranked Hoosiers, and poised to challenge perennials Ohio State and Wisconsin. Within the Big Ten, Michigan State still must be regarded No. 1 even if the veteran Spartans didn’t look like a Tom Izzo team against North Carolina on Wednesday.
Yes, defense could be Iowa’s Achilles’ heel, as it was in the glory days under Dr. Tom Davis. They guard like their main interest is getting the ball back. And, yes, they went to overtime against Xavier and Villanova, splitting those results. But they’re 8-1 and look like they’re having more fun than anybody. They do naturally what the Illini must do by the numbers. Ten players are averaging at least 13 minutes, and everybody lets fly as though it’s a 10-second shot clock.
Fran McCaffery’s club had the worst luck in the country last season, finishing 9-9 in the conference despite seven losses by four points or less. If they didn’t have bad luck, they wouldn’t have had any luck at all. In their only meeting against Illinois, they posted a 63-55 win over an Illini team that made the NCAA tournament despite finishing behind them (8-10) in the standings. Illinois won every regular season game decided by four points or less; Iowa lost seven of them.
They’re older now and playing with a flair. And if Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White have been overlooked, they won’t be for long. Those two combined for 37 against Notre Dame, and Marble cashed 54 in the two overtime games. Scoring is the least of this team’s worries.
All around the league
If you don’t think there’s a dividing line between haves and have-nots in Big Ten football, consider:
The sextet of Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa went 25-3 against the other six this season after dominating by a similar 21-3 margin a year ago.
That’s a two-year mark of 46-6 with three of the six upsets coming at the hands of Penn State, which shocked the country by bumping Wisconsin for the second straight year, 31-24 last Saturday.
Using this as a basis, Ohio State played only three quality teams after debuting Aug. 31 with a 40-20 defeat of Buffalo. The Buckeyes downed Wisconsin 31-24, Iowa 34-24 and Michigan 42-41. And it’s a stretch to call Michigan quality because the Wolverines played poorly in edging Akron (28-24) and UConn (24-21), barely escaped Northwestern in overtime, and lost to Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State, not to mention Michigan State —which absolutely drubbed them.
Can the splendid Michigan State defense hold up against the line-ripping bursts of Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde on Saturday in Indianapolis? We’ll see if the unstoppable can be stopped.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Maryland finished 3-5 in the ACC, and Rutgers was 2-5 in the AAC, so neither figures to make an immediate impact in a revamped Eastern Division that finds them up against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State next season. Illinois will be in the clearly weaker West.
— Word is circulating that Pitt and UConn have their eyes on a couple of the UI’s young football assistants. So if athletic director Mike Thomas is alerted to the necessity of retaining Bill Cubit for offensive purposes, Alex Golesh is just as valuable from a recruiting standpoint ... even though Illinois is not setting the world on fire in that department.
— The Illini volleyball team tackles Morehead State tonight with only one All-Big Ten first-teamer, sophomore Jocelynn Birks (that’s one more than football had). But more all-star talent is in the volleyball pipeline, and coach Kevin Hambly could be welcoming the nation’s No. 1 class in 2015.
— If you think each football season is predictable, how do you account for SEC playoff foes Missouri (two) and Auburn (none) combining for two conference wins last season, and Duke reaching the ACC finale after winning one of its last seven games in 2012? Combine those revivals with Northern Illinois and hope springs eternal.
— Matt Bollant is finding the job of reviving UI women’s basketball a lot tougher than he expected when he was beating all these Big Ten teams at Green Bay. After falling at Bradley early 98-92, recent setbacks have come by margins of 24, 36 and 24 points.
— Less than a week remains before the Farm’s southeast parking lot is closed as a staging area for upcoming renovation. Meanwhile, the push to sell premium seating continues, with one set of end zone loges already converted to Traditions Club seats at $1,500 per (plus a $500 donation to the scholarship fund). All these premium seats are 80 percent tax exempt.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.