For the first time in seven years, the Iowa men’s basketball team can see what a 20-win season feels like.
In a season full of ups and downs and zigs and zags, the Hawkeyes closed out an impressive third regular season under coach Fran McCaffery with a wire-to-wire win over rival Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Four Hawkeyes scored in double-figures, junior Melsahn Basabe collected his 11th career double-double and Iowa locked up the No. 6 seed in the upcoming Big Ten Conference Tournament with a 74-60 win over the Cornhuskers on Senior Day.
“I think the important thing is we realize this is just a step,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “I'm happy for Eric (May) to be the captain of the 20 win team. I'm happy for our team to have accomplished this, but we're not done, and you never want to be satisfied.”
It was the first time Iowa finished 9-9 in conference play in six years. Iowa will play No. 11 seeded Northwestern in Thursday’s first-round game of the Big Ten Tournament. That game will tip off at around 8 p.m. and Iowa swept the wounded Wildcats this season with relative ease.
“Anytime you play Northwestern -- I've known Bill Carmody for a long time,” McCaffery said. “He's a tremendous coach, difficult style. We need some time to get ready. We have some time, fortunately. We've guarded it this year better than we ever have offensively, we attacked the one three one better than we have. Last year, not so good. So we'll have to be ready for those two things.”
Basabe finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds in 21 minutes of play. Aaron White added a team-high 19 points and six boards. Both Basabe and White were 5-of-7 from the floor in a game in which Iowa shot a season-best 57 percent from the field, including a 16-of-22 performance in the second half.
Freshman Adam Woodbury had one of his best offensive performances of the season, hitting all six of his shots and collecting 12 points. Freshman Anthony Clemmons also got to double-figures as he scored 11 points and helped the Hawkeyes’ bench outscore the Cornhusker subs, 24-10.
“Well, I think there's nothing more than they've continued to improve, they've continued to work,” McCaffery said about his two freshmen. “They both have had great moments, they both have had some days where they struggled a little bit, where they persevered and they stayed positive and we stayed positive with them, and they were outstanding today.”
Iowa jumped out to a 12-3 lead following two early 3-pointers by White and Roy Devyn Marble. Woodbury also had four points during that stretch. Another bucket by Woodbury, who had eight of his 12 in the first 20 minutes, gave Iowa a 24-16 advantage and the Hawkeyes led 32-23 at the break.
It was 39-29 just two minutes into the second half, but Nebraska – like it did in the previous meeting when it rallied from 19 points down to win – wouldn’t go away quietly. The Cornhuskers got to within 43-42 with 15:09 to play and it was 48-44 before Iowa scored 15 unanswered points to put the win on ice.
The 15-0 spurt included six points from Basabe – two layups and a dunk – and three more points from Woodbury.
The Hawkeyes, who finished the regular season by winning six of their last eight games -- honored seniors Eric May and Chris Rickert before the game. May only scored two points but pulled down six rebounds and had a team-high six assists. Junior Zach McCabe also filled up the state sheet with six points, four rebounds and three assists.
Roy Devyn Marble finished just 2-of-9 from the floor and had six points, but his early 3 pushed him past the 1,000-point mark for his career. He and his father Roy Marble Sr. are now the first-ever father-son duo in Big Ten history to each score more than 1,000 points. Marble Sr. is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer.
McCaffery also won his 300th game as a collegiate coach.
“I've been fortunate. I've been in some great places and I've been fortunate enough to work for really good people, and most importantly have really terrific players that have played for me at a lot of different stops,” he said. “You know, I think that's what to think about.”
Nebraska (14-17, 5-13) was led by Ray Gallegos’ 22 points. He was 7-of-14 from 3-point range and Nebraska made 10 treys in the game as a team. Dylan Talley, who was the Husker to got hot in the comeback win over Iowa in the first meeting, was the only other Husker in double-figures Saturday. He finished with 11 points.
Iowa took a step closer to an NCAA Tournament berth but likely needs to win a few games in Chicago to have any chance at an at-large berth – if the Hawkeyes don’t run the table in the Big Ten Tournament.
“I think we can win the Big Ten Tournament,” McCaffery said. “It's going to take a lot of what you saw today in terms of our depth, producing at the level that they did, because we have to win four games consecutively, and that's going to take a lot of energy.
“Getting Mike (Gesell) back, that will help, and I think that will happen, so that will give us another hand, another shooter, another play maker.”
The Hawkeyes’ best wins this year are against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa State – all likely NCAA Tournament teams. The win over Northwestern in Round 1 likely doesn’t help much but a victory in the second round against either Michigan or Michigan State could put the Hawkeyes over the top.
McCaffery thinks his squad should already be highly considered.
“I think we deserve tremendous consideration,” McCaffery said. “I definitely feel like we're one of the best 68 teams. I think to have gone through this league, clearly the best league in the country, and finished 9 and 9. We have accomplished a great deal.”