When Iowa took on Wisconsin on Jan.5 at the Kohl Center, the Hawkeyes blew a big lead that allowed the Badgers to steal a win and remain undefeated. A week later, though, it was the Hawkeyes playing the role of the comeback kids, leading to the biggest win of their season and potentially the biggest win of Fran McCaffery’s tenure as the Iowa head coach.
Iowa — again on the road vs. a top-five team — trailed Ohio State by nine with roughly 12 and a half minutes left in the game. But a pair of free throws and three straight 3-pointers ended in an 11-2 Iowa run, tying the game at 55. The Hawkeyes eventually took a 66-65 lead and didn’t look back, upsetting the third-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus, 84-74.
Iowa’s recent fortunes in Madison notwithstanding, it had been Ohio State who held the title of the conference’s best comeback artists. The Buckeyes pulled off an improbable win against Notre Dame earlier in the season down eight with 50 seconds left. And Tuesday, down 17 at Michigan State, the Buckeyes closed that game on a 20-3 run to force overtime in what ended up being their first loss of the season.
But Sunday, the Hawkeyes beat the Buckeyes at their own game.
"Clearly, it's going to be good for our confidence level because we have tremendous respect for everything that Thad (Matta)'s done since he got here but this team in particular,” McCaffery said after the game. “I watched this team against Notre Dame, I watched them against Michigan State, and they're as resilient a team as I've seen. They're as resilient a team I've seen in a long time on film. So to beat them, you need to have those same characteristics, and I thought today we were incredibly resilient at various times in the game. And I think that for us is a sign of maturity and development."
So where does this rank among McCaffery’s biggest wins at Iowa? The coach is fond of a win over a top-10 Purdue team back in 2011, his first year at the helm, but this win over No. 3 Ohio State on the road obviously sits near the top of the list.
"We've had a few,” McCaffery said, recalling his program’s biggest victories. “My first year, when we were trying to establish something, we beat the fifth-ranked team, Purdue, on the last day of the season. That was huge. It was huge for momentum for our program in terms of making a step. Second year we beat four ranked teams. But this is the first time we've done it on the road, so I think from that standpoint I think that's a fair assessment."
It’s the latest impressive showing by Iowa this season, a year in which the Hawkeyes are climbing the rankings and threatening as one of the conference’s top teams. Iowa now boasts a 14-3 record, and the losses are not bad at all: Iowa State on the road, Wisconsin on the road and Xavier on a neutral court. When it comes to tournament resumes, the Hawkeyes have one of the better ones. This win over Ohio State makes it that much stronger.
Is it much of a surprise, though? The Hawkeyes, after all, are the Big Ten’s most experienced team, returning all five starters from a year ago and adding an important piece in Jared Uthoff, a transfer from Wisconsin who knows his way around the Big Ten. Five Hawkeyes scored in double figures in Sunday's win.
But the star of this veteran group has been Roy Devyn Marble, who leads the team with 16.4 points per game. The newly minted Big Ten player of the week has played exceptionally since the start of Big Ten play, too, averaging 19.8 points in the four conference games. And Marble has shone brightest on the biggest stages. He poured in 27 in the loss to Wisconsin before an excellent 22-point effort on Sunday against Ohio State. He filled up the stat sheet, too, adding four rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.
"He was really playing free and easy. He was on the ball, he was off the ball. He played with great energy, he did not seem to tire,” McCaffery said. “They were going after him, they put (Aaron) Craft on him essentially to try and shut him down. He just kept coming, and when he does that, it really reflects positively on the rest of the guys in terms of their confidence level and how they play."
As with any team that finds success early in the conference season, Iowa now has the not-so-simple task of maintaining it. The Big Ten is rife with excellent teams this season. As McCaffery said Sunday, the schedule is just brutal.
"I think we have a really good team. And now the challenge is you've got another one coming up,” he said. “The league is brutal, and you can never get too up or too down no matter what happens."