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Men's college basketball: Hawkeyes look to handle NCAA hopes at Big Ten Tourney

Mar. 14—IOWA CITY — The Iowa Hawkeyes were hoping to be squarely on the bubble heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

The bubble may not have completely popped on Sunday night, but it certainly shrank for the Hawkeyes after a 73-61 loss to Illinois on Senior Night at Carver Hawkeye-Arena. Iowa could not completely overcome a cold start that included 10 consecutive missed shots from the field allowing the visiting Illini to open a 21-4 lead.

"We just kept fighting. We had good shots. I can't be critical of that. It just seemed like the shots just wouldn't fall," Iowa head men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery said on Sunday. "Illinois is a good defensive team. They compete. It wasn't like they were doing anything special. We just couldn't get shots to fall."

Iowa has had four days to shake off a disappointing effort in the team's final regular-season home game of the season. Seemingly, the stars were aligning for the Hawkeyes heading into Sunday night with the NCAA Tournament at-large hopes for Iowa on the rise thanks to four wins in five games, including a home win over No. 20 Wisconsin and impressive road wins over tournament teams Michigan State and Northwestern that gave Iowa an outside chance entering the weekend of earning a top-four finish in the Big Ten Conference and a double-bye into the conference tournament quarterfinals.

With a win over No. 12 Illinois, the Hawkeyes would put themselves squarely in position to contend for an NCAA berth that seemed well out of reach just one month earlier. Iowa, however, could not overcome the early 17-point deficit against the Illini getting as close as 51-47 with 11:15 left before another scoring drought of nearly four minutes allowed Illinois to build its lead out to 59-47.

"We just missed some shots. That's they way it goes," Iowa junior Payton Sandfort said. "We tried to get stops and get some things started in transition. We got some really good looks at the front of rim. They just didn't fall."

All is not lost for Iowa as an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament is still in play for the Hawkeyes if they can win four games in four days at the Target Center. Iowa dropped from earning the No. 5 seed with a win over Illinois to the No. 7 seed, potentially setting up the Hawkeyes to meet the Illini for the third time this season in Friday evening's Big Ten quarterfinal round.

For Illinois, the Big Ten tournament's second seed is carrying plenty of confidence heading into Minneapolis. The Illini (23-8, 14-6 Big Ten), one of the conference's highest-scoring teams, proved against Iowa on Sunday they can win a game with their defense just as easily holding the Hawkeyes to 61 points, the lowest total Illinois has held any opponent to since a 74-57 win over Colgate back on Dec. 17.

"This group understands that teams make runs, especially good teams," Illinois head men's basketball coach Brad Underwood said. "We just kind of maintained. Everyone was positive in the huddle. Everyone was upbeat. They were saying all the right things. I'm really encouraged by that."

For Iowa (18-13, 10-10 Big Ten) to earn a third meeting with Illinois and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, the Hawkeyes will face to beat one of the conference's hottest teams in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State, like Iowa, has played their way into NCAA Tournament contention winning five of their last six games all under the direction of interim head coach Jake Diebler including a 73-69 upset of Big Ten regular-season champion Purdue back on Feb. 18.

"We're going to face a red-hot team in Ohio State. We'll go from there," McCaffery said. "It helps to know what it takes to compete in the tournament. This is one of the toughest tournaments in terms of the quality of teams in it."

Wins over Ohio State and No. 12 Illinois may help Iowa's position in terms of an NCAA Tournament berth, but would be half the work needed for the Hawkeyes to earn the automatic bid as the tournament's champion. Nebraska, Indiana or Penn State await either Iowa, Illinois or Ohio State in Saturday's second semifinal while the other side of the Big Ten bracket includes Purdue, which may be playing to secure the NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed, as well as NCAA Tournament hopefuls Northwestern, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

From Underwood's perspective, a possible Big Ten tournament quarterfinal clash between Iowa and Illinois would be a clash of NCAA Tournament teams.

"Iowa's NCAA worthy," Underwood said. "They should be in the dance.

"I think we have work to do, but I think we're one of the better teams. We've got some really good wins in a really good league," McCaffery added. "It's not something you want to leave to chance. We've got a chance to take care of it ourselves this week."