On Jan. 12, the first time these two teams met, Iowa left Columbus, Ohio with its biggest win in years.
The Hawkeyes, you see, had yet to "break through." They were clearly a good team; no one had any question about that. But they had a confusing habit of failing to turn "being good at basketball" into "winning basketball games." They lost in overtime to Villanova in the Bahamas. They let Iowa State overcome them in the closing moments in Ames. They could have, maybe should have, won at Wisconsin. Worse, this was a multiyear pattern, the same custom that cost them a real shot at the NCAA tournament a season ago.
Jan. 12 changed all that. Here was an Iowa team authoritatively finishing off a Big Ten contender on the road. Here was an Iowa team dispensing with the drama. Here was the big win, the proof, the path forward.
Less than a month later, here’s the rematch, and it feels like we’re traveling in circles.
To be fair, that is as much the Buckeyes’ fault as the Hawks’. Ohio State has spent the past month keeping up its general offensive struggles while also suddenly turning into the worst defensive team Thad Matta has coached in years. The Buckeyes rattled off losses to Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State. They didn’t look much better in a win over Illinois, and their win over Wisconsin on Saturday was just blech. Suddenly, it is fair to wonder whether beating Ohio State is even all that impressive in the first place.
Of course, the Hawkeyes have done their fair share of damage. They lost at uber-hot Michigan, which was fine. But they soon let Michigan State -- the basketball equivalent of Monty Python’s Black Knight -- playing with neither Branden Dawson nor Adreian Payne -- beat them on their own floor. Rightly or wrongly, either win would have kept the "can’t win big games" narrative at bay. Now, it’s back out in the open, being all gross and narrative-y, smearing crayon on the walls of an otherwise impressive season.
The good news: The quality of Iowa’s basketball hasn’t really changed! The last 15 minutes of Michigan State aside, the Hawkeyes have been playing the super-efficient, up-tempo offense, mixed with the same adaptable, stingy defense, that have made them a fixture among the adjusted efficiency top 10. The fundamentals are all there. The vital signs are strong.
But at some point, you have to start getting results. That’s the one unifying principle of the NCAA tournament selection committee criteria: It doesn’t matter how efficient you are, or how close you play people. Without wins, you’re nothing.
Iowa, believe it or not, still very much needs some wins. Closing this Ohio State-narrative loop on Tuesday night seems as good a starting point as any.