Tonight, the 2013 Iowa Hawkeye men’s basketball team plays Baylor for the NIT championship.  Win or lose, it’s the final game of the season for this Hawkeye basketball team, and what a season it has been!

2013 Iowa Hawkeye Men’s Basketball

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that the 2013 team is my favorite Hawkeye men’s basketball team since 2001.  That’s not to say they’re the most talented or the most accomplished.  The 2006 team was a terrific squad that went undefeated at home, finished a game away from a Big Ten regular season title, won the Big Ten Tournament title, and earned a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  All in all, I can’t reasonably say that this 2013 squad has topped that…even if they beat Baylor tonight.

However, I’m somehow more invested and proud of this 2013 team.  That’s not a knock on the 2006 squad, but as excited as I was for them, something was missing with that team.  Maybe it was the fact that they came up a game short of reaching the ultimate prize – a regular season Big Ten championship.  I’m 33 years old, and the Hawkeyes still haven’t accomplished that in my lifetime.  It was there for the taking in 2006, as a four-loss team could have captured a share of the crown.  But the Hawks finished with five league losses…and that 51-48 loss to Northwestern still tastes sour even after nearly a decade.

Maybe it was the fact that the 2006 team was a senior-laden squad…that this was the best shot Iowa would have in a while to achieve something great.  Losing the regular season conference title – and then the Northwestern State upset – took some of the gleam off of an otherwise excellent year.  Or maybe I (like many other Hawk fans) was suffering from Steve Alford fatigue.  Who knows?

Regardless, I’m very happy for this 2013 Hawkeye team.  In an interesting twist, with a 25-12 record, these 2013 Hawkeyes are tied with the 2006 Hawks (25-9) for the second-most wins in a single season in Iowa basketball history (behind the 1987 Hawks, who went 30-5); they can stand alone in second place if they can defeat Baylor for their 26th victory of the year tonight.  I think the reason I enjoy this 2013 Hawkeye basketball team so much is because I feel like I’ve seen them grow up before my eyes…and in many ways, the future of Hawkeye basketball has matured with them.  It’s hard to describe, but this was such a fun squad to watch and cheer for.

The Big Ten in the 2013 NCAA Tournament

The 2013 Iowa Hawkeye men’s basketball team has made a clear and compelling case during the NIT Tournament that they were unfairly snubbed from the NCAA Tournament this year.  Seven Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament, and the league has performed very well in the Big Dance.  The Big Ten went 6-1 in the first round (yes, it’s still the first round to me) of the tournament and placed four teams in the Sweet Sixteen.  Ohio State and Michigan advanced to the Elite Eight, with the Wolverines winning their region and making the trek to Atlanta for the Final Four.

Based on the Big Ten’s seedings, the conference performed exactly to expectations in the NCAA Tournament.  That statement is misleading, however.  Many one-bid conferences receive a low seeding for their lone representative team…leading to an expected total of zero wins.  Given that, it is literally impossible for those leagues to underachieve.  The vast majority of these conferences live up to outsiders’ non-existent expectations and exit quietly in the first round, but every year, Cinderellas – like Florida Gulf Coast – emerge.  By definition, their successes must come at the expense of some other conference.

The conferences victimized are the conferences with higher seedings and actual expectations.  By placing seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, and by having four of them with relatively high seeds, the Big Ten had high expectations to live up to.  The Big Ten held serve and proved that, top to bottom, the Big Ten was the best conference in the land in college basketball this season.

Iowa = Snubbed

The NCAA Tournament took seven teams from the Big Ten: the teams that finished 1-5 in the league standings and the teams that finished seventh and eighth.  They bypassed Iowa, a team that finished sixth in the Big Ten with a 9-9 conference record.

There are a lot of excuses for why Iowa was snubbed.  They said that Iowa’s conference schedule – where Iowa only played Michigan and Ohio State once – wasn’t as strong as some other teams in the league.  That’s silly, of course.  First of all, there’s no proof that a harder conference schedule would have changed Iowa’s .500 league record.  Give Iowa a second game with Michigan or Ohio State in exchange for, say, Iowa’s road game at Nebraska or Purdue, and Iowa would have the exact same conference record – against a tougher schedule – regardless of how they did against the Buckeyes or Wolverines.  Plus, if the Hawkeyes actually got to play Michigan or Ohio State in Iowa City (they played both teams only on the road this season), maybe they would have pulled an improbable upset.

But even if a tougher Big Ten schedule would have dropped Iowa’s conference record by a game, all that would have done is tied them with Minnesota and Illinois, who both made the NCAA Tournament.  The Hawks finished a full game better in the league standings than both of those squads, so it stands to reason that Iowa did what they were supposed to do against an allegedly weaker Big Ten slate – compile a better conference record.

What many pundits have hammered Iowa for in missing the NCAA Tournament is the strength of Iowa’s non-conference schedule.  I can’t buy that argument, either.  Iowa went 11-2 in the non-conference, but one of those two losses was to Wichita State…a team that advanced all the way to the Final Four.  Not bad for a weak non-conference team!

Iowa’s worst loss of the year, of course, was probably to Virginia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.  But the Hawkeyes did knock off Iowa State, who qualified for the NCAA Tournament.  So Iowa’s bad loss to the Hokies should be mitigated somewhat by a victory over an NCAA Tournament team.

The other ten teams Iowa played in the non-conference were pretty weak as a group, no doubt.  Yet Iowa did against them what an NCAA Tournament team is supposed to do: go 10-0 with an average margin of victory of 22.4 points per game.  The computers hammered the Hawkeyes’ schedule, saying that many of these teams finished around 250 in their rankings of Division I college basketball teams.  If Iowa had played teams that finished, say, 200 in the rankings – and only won by 15 points per game – the computers would have liked that better.

Seriously?  That’s a reason to keep a team out of the NCAA Tournament?  Just how much difference is there between the 250th-ranked team in college basketball and the 200th-ranked team in the sport, anyway?  And who can predict before the season if a team will finish 200th or 250th in the eyes of a computer program?

What I saw from the 2013 Iowa Hawkeye men’s basketball team was a squad that did what it was supposed to against a weak non-conference schedule and then finished 10-10 (including the conference tournament) against Big Ten competition, with seven of those ten losses by just four points or fewer.  That performance in the toughest league in the land should have been enough to get an NCAA Tournament invite over several mid-majors who were annihilated in the first round (or in the play-in round).  Iowa’s performance in the NIT Tournament has only seemed to validate that opinion.

NCAA Vs. NIT

The true irony of all of this is that you can make a legitimate argument this trip to the NIT championship was the best thing that could have happened to the Hawkeye basketball program.  It injected excitement back into the fanbase that lasted for weeks, as fans flocked to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for two sellout NIT Tournament games.  More importantly, this young Iowa team continues to mature, learning how to win close games and even secure victories on the road against very talented opposition.  You can make a strong case that the NIT Tournament has done more for the growth of this young Hawkeye club than a first round NCAA Tournament loss would have.

Naturally, I’d still rather see the Hawks playing in the NCAA Tournament, and I’m annoyed that they were snubbed by the selection committee.  But one poster on HawkeyeReport.com did a great job of paraphrasing the Rolling Stones in a way that seemed awfully appropriate for Iowa’s 2013 post-season: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

For the future of Hawkeye basketball, the NIT Tournament may not have been what fans wanted.  But we may find a few years from now that it was precisely what this young squad needed.  Now, good luck and go finish the job, Hawks!

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