Iowa fighting for postseason chance

LUKE MEREDITH AP Sports Writer Published:

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Iowa might be a longshot for a spot in the NIT, let alone the NCAA tournament.

After all, there was that 16-point home loss to Campbell and the 23-point drubbing by Creighton.

Oh, and the 76-47 loss to Ohio State and the 95-61 disaster at Michigan State, a night coach Fran McCaffery slammed a chair to the ground.

And yet, as the Hawkeyes get set for March, they are an intriguing postseason case study.

Iowa (15-13, 7-8 Big Ten) has four wins over ranked opponents in league play. Two have come in the past week, including Thursday night's rousing 67-66 victory over No. 16 Wisconsin.

The Hawkeyes entered the game with an RPI of 136, which is extremely high for a serious at-large NCAA tournament candidate.

But Iowa is alone in seventh place in the 12-team Big Ten -- one of the toughest leagues in the nation -- and only the Buckeyes, Spartans and Michigan have beaten more Top 25 teams.

"The reality is, these kids are working hard for me. They have bought in from day one and given me everything they had," McCaffery said. "To be able to see them kind of enjoy all this hard work, to see the students rush the floor, the fourth ranked team we've beaten this year, it just goes to show you what they're capable of doing. Who knows where we're headed right now?"

Wherever the Hawkeyes are headed next month, the past week has shown how much the program has grown in its second season under McCaffery.

Two years ago this month, Iowa was in the midst of a spiral that cost former coach Todd Lickliter his job. McCaffery didn't fare much better last season, finishing 11-20, and there was a tepid 5-5 start this season during which Iowa barely appeared competitive in losses to Creighton, Clemson, Northern Iowa and Iowa State.

But the Hawkeyes recovered with three straight wins ahead of Big Ten play and, save for the occasional stinker such as last week's loss at Penn State, have been a completely different team since.

"We had some tough losses. There have been a couple nights we just didn't play well. Everybody was sideways. You're coming into the locker room, you're disappointed," McCaffery said. "But that's what the journey is about. You've got to fight through it. You've got to keep coming."

Iowa is a team few would want to face right now. Most of that has to do with senior Matt Gatens, who seems determined to reach the postseason for the first time in his career.

Gatens has broken his career high for points in back-to-back games, putting up 30 in Sunday's 78-66 win over Indiana and 33 against the Badgers.

"It's coming to an end. It's sad, but I want to keep playing. I want to make the postseason. I want to get this team growing. We're still growing, we're still pushing," Gatens said. "Hopefully we can continue to use this momentum into the next game, but it feels great to be kind of going out on a high note. But it's far from over."

Of course, any talk of a postseason trip for the Hawkeyes will subside if they stumble in the next two weeks. But Iowa has climbed above each of its next three opponents in the Big Ten standings, Illinois, Nebraska and Northwestern, and it certainly looks like a team capable of pulling off that sweep.

"What you're seeing is a young team get better and learn from their mistakes," McCaffery said. "Hopefully now we can go on the road and play with the kind of confidence we're playing with right now."