One week removed from the verbal tirade that earned him an ejection and a one-game suspension, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery got emotional on the sidelines once again during Sunday’s game at Ohio State.
This outburst, however, was accompanied by a smile.
As the final horn sounded in Iowa’s 84-74 victory over the No. 3 Buckeyes, television cameras captured McCaffery pacing back and forth in front of the Hawkeyes bench, chest-bumping and high-fiving various players following one of the biggest triumphs in recent school history.
Sunday’s win was the Hawkeyes' first against a Top Five team since 2001. It also provided a huge jolt of confidence to a squad that has gone seven straight years without making the NCAA tournament. At 14-3 overall, Iowa should be in good shape for the postseason as long as it doesn’t flounder down the stretch.
Not that the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes are thinking that far head.
“There’s no reason we can’t contend for and win the league title,” junior forward Aaron White told Bleacher Report by phone after Sunday’s win. “That's what we’re here to do.”
Iowa as the Big Ten champion?
Shoot, why not?
McCaffery’s squad is playing as well any school in the league.
Injury-riddled Michigan State is undefeated in conference play but needed overtime to squeak past Ohio State and Minnesota at home. Michigan’s Big Ten record is unblemished, too, but without departed star Trey Burke and injured forward Mitch McGary, this clearly isn’t the same caliber of Wolverines team that reached the NCAA title game last April.
That leaves Wisconsin. The Badgers (16-0, 3-0) handed Iowa its only Big Ten loss 75-71 Jan. 5 in Madison. Iowa, though, led by 11 at halftime before unraveling after McCaffery was tossed for arguing with officials, an incident that gave Wisconsin four points.
In each of their three losses, the Hawkeyes have had Top 10 opponents down by double digits, but couldn’t finish them off.
“It’s been the same story each time,” White said. “We’ve been up big in the first half and then not made the plays in the second half that we needed to.
“(Today) we knew we’d be in it in the second. We really needed to key on making plays, making free throws, getting big rebounds and coming out with a win.”
The Hawkeyes did just that against an Ohio State team that was undefeated at this time week ago. Roy Devyn Marble scored 22 points and White added 19 for Iowa, who closed Sunday’s game on a 22-9 run.
Ohio State, which fell in overtime at Michigan State Tuesday, is now 15-2 and 2-2.
“I watched (Ohio State) against Notre Dame and Michigan State,” McCaffery said in his postgame press conference. “They’re as resilient of a team as I’ve seen in a long time.
“To beat them, you need to have those same characteristics. Today, we were incredibly resilient at various times in the game. That’s a sign of maturity and development.”
Sunday’s victory had to be gratifying for McCaffery.
The Hawkeyes had been mainstays near the bottom of the Big Ten standings when McCaffery left Siena to become their head coach in 2010.
Iowa went just 4-14 in the Big Ten during McCaffery’s first season, but has made steady improvement ever since. Last season the Hawkeyes reached the NIT title game, where they lost to Baylor. They clearly carried that momentum into this season, winning 10 of their first 11 games..
People are taking notice.
“Coming here as a freshman, no one talked about Iowa in the national media,” White said Sunday. “No one knew much about it. No one knew much about Coach McCaffery or what we were about.”
Sunday’s victory over a Top Five opponent should go a long way toward changing that.
“It’s a big building block for a couple of reasons,” White said. “For one, it was on national TV, so a ton of people got to watch it and see what we do here.
“It was also big for our confidence. We’ve been a good team all year, but we hadn’t had that signature win yet. We hadn’t made that statement.”
Who will win the Big Ten regular season title?
The Hawkeyes certainly did that on Sunday, beating a Top 25 opponent for the first time this season. The “statement” they made likely won’t be their last. There are still two games to be played against Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa as well as a rematch with Wisconsin.
With a starting lineup that features two seniors (Marble and Melsahn Basabe) and a junior (White) and a roster that has managed to stay healthy thus far, there’s no reason to think Iowa won’t contend for the title in the nation’s toughest league.
As long as it stays level-headed on the court.
And the sideline, too.
“I think we’ve got a really good team,” McCaffery said. “Now the challenge is, we’ve got another (game) coming up. The league is brutal. You can never get too up or too down.”