Can Hawkeyes stop free fall and avoid first-round exit?

Can Hawkeyes stop free fall and avoid first-round exit?
March 17, 2014, 2:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

In the battle of hot vs. cold, hot has a distinct advantage. Put a piece of ice under a heater, and you’ll see. It’s physics.

And it’s a scientific lesson that could prove disastrous for Iowa, a team so cold they’re thinking of naming the next polar vortex "Herky."

It’ll be hot vs. cold in the first round of the NCAA tournament, when ice-cold Iowa takes on a hot Tennessee team on Wednesday.

The Hawkeyes have won just one game since their regular-season date with Indiana was postponed due to falling metal at Assembly Hall. Whether it threw Fran McCaffery’s team completely out of whack or it’s all just sheer coincidence, that has been the turning point in this Iowa season. The direction? Straight down.

Things have been getting worse, too, culminating with a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament courtesy of an embarrassing 67-62 loss to Northwestern. Iowa, a team that led the conference in scoring this season has an average of 62.5 points in its past two games. A team that looked like it was going to challenge for a Big Ten title has lost six of seven. And now a team that looked primed for a deep tournament run is one of the final three teams to squeak into the field of 68.

Iowa’s tournament journey — no matter how brief it might be — begins Wednesday. Can the Hawkeyes keep it from ending then, too?

[MORE: First impressions: Big Ten lands six in NCAA tournament]

First up

The Hawkeyes take on the Volunteers in one of the First Four games Wednesday. It’s a play-in game, and the winner gets an 11-seed and a second-round date with UMass.

Iowa’s late-season collapse is worsened when coupled with Tennessee’s late-season surge. The Volunteers were winners in six of their last eight games, and they were riding a five-game winning streak before running into Florida, the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, in their second game in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee has been blowing out opponents of late, too, winning its final three regular-season games against Vanderbilt, Auburn and Missouri by an average of 27.7 points.

That’s bad news for an Iowa team that hasn’t been able to stop anybody, allowing four opponents to score 79 points or more during this abysmal stretch. And it’s even more troubling when you consider the once high-scoring Hawkeyes haven’t been so high-scoring lately.

Survive and advance

When looking at this game and how Iowa as been playing, it’s hard to feel good about the Hawkeyes’ chances of even seeing the Minutemen. But if things could get figured out and the Hawkeyes could get by both Tennessee and UMass, down-the-road matchups in the very difficult Midwest Region could include Duke or conference foe Michigan. But a lot would have to happen first.

[RELATED: Illini, Gophers head to NIT after missing Big Dance]

One shining moment

If any one player can turn Iowa’s fortunes around, it’s Roy Devyn Marble. The senior guard was one of the Big Ten’s best players this season, finishing fourth in the league in scoring with 17.3 points per game. Marble has continued to pour in the points even as the Hawkeyes have crumbled, scoring 20-plus points in all but one game since this stretch began. Marble has had some terrific performances this season: 26 points in a win over Michigan, 30 points in an overtime defeat of Xavier, 27 in a close loss to Wisconsin. Some more like that could keep the Hawkeyes afloat.

How far will they get?

The Hawkeyes have played poorly of late, if you haven’t figured it out by now, and there isn’t much to inspire confidence that they’ll turn it around quickly. You’d think this veteran-laden team would put up some fight, but a First Four exit to Tennessee would at this point be an unsurprising end to this once-promising season.