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Iowa Basketball: Slumping Hawkeyes get chance at redemption in NCAA Tournament

Iowa junior forward Aaron White gets up high for the dunk in the regular-season finale against Illinois last week. White and the Hawkeyes will play in their first NCAA Tournament in eight seasons.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Losers of six of its last seven games, all the Iowa men’s basketball team wanted was another chance.

A chance to prove that what they had accomplished in the Big Ten Conference season prior to the most recent slump wasn’t a fluke.

A chance to show that, in year four of the Fran McCaffery era, that the program was continuing to make strides.

The Hawkeyes got that shot Sunday night when CBS flashed Iowa on the screen during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Iowa (20-12) will be a part of the 68-team field and will play Tennessee in a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio, at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

“You can’t control matchups, you can’t control where you’re going and you can’t control who you’re playing,” said Iowa junior forward Aaron White on playing in the play-in game as one of the 11 seeds in the Midwest Regional. “We’ll focus on that first one. We are thankful for the chance to keep playing and now we have an opportunity to compete.”

Before going 1-6 in their last seven games, the Hawkeyes looked well on their way to their first NCAA Tournament berth in eight seasons. Iowa started the Big Ten season 8-4 but finished 9-9 and lost four games to teams that aren't in the field of 68.

But Wednesday gives Iowa a chance to rebound, recover and regroup from a disappointing finish.

“It’s not a play-in game. It’s the first round of the NCAA Tournament,” insisted Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “Our team is incredibly business-like with how we approach everything. We weren’t jumping up and down. We are not that kind of team. The guys knew we were going to get in. We knew that the body of work was deserving.”

According to CBS, Iowa’s body of work was good enough but just barely. The Hawkeyes were listed as one of the “final four” teams the selection committee picked to make the tournament.

And Minnesota, a team with a similar body of work, was not selected. That’s how close the Hawkeyes were to once again being left out of the field.

“I still want to go deep in the tournament,” said Iowa guard and first-team all-Big Ten selection Roy Devyn Marble. “I feel like we have the team and the coaches here to do so. We are not satisfied. We need to prepare, get back on track and see if we can’t get some momentum going.”

Tennessee (21-12) has gotten better as the season has progressed. The Volunteers beat No. 6 Virginia by 35 points earlier this season and come into Wednesday’s game having won five of their last six games.

In games against common opponents, Tennessee went 1-1 against Xavier and lost to UTEP. Those three games were at the Battle 4 Atlantis, where Iowa defeated both Xavier and UTEP before losing to nationally ranked Villanova in the championship game.

The Hawkeyes prepared to face the Volunteers in the Bahamas but never got that chance after UTEP recorded the upset.

“If you’re in this tournament, you are a good team and we’ll handle them that way,” said White, who grew up two hours away from Dayton, Ohio. “It should be a good game and we’re looking forward to it.

“This could be last time you put on the jersey. We have to leave it all on the floor.”

Tennessee is 4-1 in the month of March and is led by 6-foot-6 guard Jordan McRae, who averages 18.8 points per game. Six-foot-8 forward Jarnell Stokes scores 14.5 points and grabs 10.3 rebounds per contest. Jeronne Maymon, a 6-8 forward, averages 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and Josh Richardson also scores 9.5 points per tilt.

“They are a different team. They have gotten progressively better as the season as gone on,” said McCaffery, who has now taken four different Division I schools to the NCAA Tournament. “They are athletic and powerful. They can hurt you in a variety of ways.”

The first-round contest inside Dayton Arena between Iowa and Tennessee will be televised on TruTV. The winner will meet No. 6 seed Massachusetts (24-8) Friday in Raleigh, N.C., in the second round.

This marks Iowa's 23rd trip to the NCAA Tournament but the first since 2006. Iowa and Tennessee have met three times, with Iowa holding a 2-1 advantage. The teams last met on Dec. 29, 2000, in the Rainbow Classic, with Tennessee winning, 80-68, in the tournament semifinals.

The Midwest Regional includes top-seeded Wichita State, along with No. 2 seed Michigan, No. 3 seed Duke and No. 4 seed Louisville. The Cardinals defeated Michigan in the 2013 NCAA Championship game.

“I don’t care about that. I am excited to play,” said White about being forced to play on Wednesday. “No matter what the seed or where we are going, I am excited for the opportunity. We’re in, and that’s all you can ask for.”

McCaffery is expected to be on the bench Wednesday despite his 13-year-old son having surgery to remove a tumor earlier in the day in Iowa City.

“My hope is to leave tomorrow and head up to Dayton with the team,” said McCaffery. “I plan on flying back for the surgery and then flying back for the game if that can work out. We’ll figure that out, but there is no chance I will miss the game.”

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