By John Bohnenkamp
The seed, Fran McCaffery said, didn’t matter.
Iowa is a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, matching the program’s highest seed from the 1987 tournament.
So, McCaffery was asked on Sunday night, when the 68-team bracket was announced and the Hawkeyes were scheduled to play 15 seed Grand Canyon on Saturday, what did that seed mean?
“Nothing,” the coach said.
“Nothing,” McCaffery responded.
The NCAA tournament is unpredictable in a normal season, but in a season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, anything is possible.
There is a mental toughness that goes with all of this — the Hawkeyes, like every other team, will be quarantined and tested, contact traced if necessary.
“It’s not that much different than the summer time,” McCaffery said, pointing out that isolation has been the key to getting through this season. “It’s all we’ve done. I really don’t think it’s changed anything. We’re really locked in as a group.”
But McCaffery wants to make sure the Hawkeyes are locked in on something else — everyone they’ll see in this tournament is a quality opponent.
“I’ll tell you this — every team I’ve taken to this NCAA Tournament has been a really, really good basketball team with terrific players,” McCaffery said. “And that’s the message to our guys. They’re very well aware of who’s in our league and who the great players are. They’re not as aware of some other conferences. And what they have to do is be respectful that any team that makes this tournament won their way here. This isn’t a lottery. You’ve got to earn it. You’re going to face an incredibly motivated, really talented, well-coached basketball team. Anything short of our best effort, you’re going to have a hard time winning.”
McCaffery took a 13th-seeded Siena team to the 2008 tournament and beat fourth-seeded Vanderbilt by 21 points. A year later, Siena was a No. 9 seed and beat Ohio State in the first round before putting a scare in top seed Louisville in the second round.
“I firmly believe there is no such thing as an upset in this tournament,” McCaffery said.
The Hawkeyes are a veteran team, one with a roster that had logged more than 11,000 minutes before the season started.
They were angry, like every other team, that they didn’t have a chance to play in the postseason last year, when COVID-19 shut everything down right before the Hawkeyes were supposed to play in the Big Ten tournament.
They have been tested in the Big Ten, playing a 20-game grind with a few twists here and there, certainly with a lot of pushes and shoves everywhere. It was a grind that can harden teams.
Four of the top seven seeds in this tournament are Big Ten teams. Michigan and Illinois are No. 1 seeds in their respective regions, Ohio State and Iowa are 2 seeds. All four played in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament on Saturday.
“When you talk about a conference tournament where a 2 seed (in the NCAA tournament) played a 1 seed in the semifinals on both sides (of the bracket) to get to the championship, there’s not another conference really doing that at our level,” Garza said. “It’s going to prepare us more than anything.”
“We feel like we put ourselves into a good position to make a good run and win it all,” forward Joe Wieskamp said.
The Hawkeyes won eight of their last 10 games, the lone losses to Michigan and Illinois. They have been at their best defensively, something they certainly weren’t in that stretch when they lost four of five games in late January and early February and led some to doubt whether this was a team built for March.
“I think consistency on the defensive end throughout every single game. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Garza said. “We know our offense is going to come along — at some point during the game we’re going to get hot. But if we’re able to get stops consistently throughout the game, we can beat anybody.”
A road of isolation — quiet arenas, quiet life — will end at some point in Indianapolis in the next three weeks.
“It’s a whatever-it-takes mentality,” Garza said.
“You’ve got to bring it, prepare, and compete in order to advance,” McCaffery said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Photo: Iowa’s Luka Garza dunks during Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal against Illinois. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)