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Out of nowhere, Iowa on a roll

1/5/2012

It's been a pretty great week for the state of Iowa. On Tuesday, 140,000 or so Iowan Republicans got together and proved that local politics -- the idea that actually going door-to-door and meeting people on the campaign trail, radical though it may be -- actually matters. In the process, CNN aired the greatest, most adorable, most Iowa phone call of all-time. (Edith did not like the suggestion that her numbers did not add up.) Whatever concerns you may have about the impact a minuscule number of Iowans may have on the future of the American presidency, those of us from the state tend to think we do a pretty good job, regardless of political belief.

If anything can overshadow the gleeful democratic enthusiasm in the Hawkeye State this week, well, it may just be the Hawkeyes themselves.

OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. OK, the exaggeration probably isn't "slight." But either way, it's worth taking a step back and noting exactly what this Iowa team has done in the past week. On Saturday, Fran McCaffery's team got one of the more surprising road wins in this season or any other, a 72-65 road win at Wisconsin. Yes, you read that right: "road win at Wisconsin." Four days later, I'm still processing this. But it happened.

The question going forward was whether that performance was a fluke -- an aberration borne of some unusually poor Wisconsin shooting, not unlike the Badgers' first home loss of the season to Marquette -- or the real deal. Before Wednesday night, I was leaning toward fluke. How could you not? Sure, Iowa nearly toppled Purdue in Iowa City a week ago, but how significant is that? After Wednesday night, when the Hawkeyes escaped The Barn with a 64-62 win over Minnesota, I think the answer might be "pretty significant." "Real deal" might not be quite so far off.

Which is not to say the Hawkeyes are setting the world ablaze. Still, the contrast from where this team was early in this season is impossible to miss. Iowa's nonconference performance was ugly, and that's being polite. The Hawkeyes were trounced by Creighton. Clemson easily handled them at home. They put up minimal fight at UNI and Iowa State, losing by a combined margin of 36 points. And I haven't even mentioned the coup de grace, a Nov. 23 77-61 home loss -- yes, home loss -- to Campbell. The Fighting Camels were 16 points better than Iowa on Iowa's home floor. For a rebuilding team that entered the season with sneaky expectations -- of the "hey, Iowa could be respectable this year, look out" kind -- the Campbell loss was an apparent confirmation of how deep a hole this program is in. If you get blown out by the Camels on your own floor, chances are you're taking your licks in the Big Ten.

And that would have been OK! McCaffery is in his second year of a deep rebuilding project; his best player last season (Melsahn Basabe), impressive though he was, was originally recruited to play in the MAAC at Siena. McCaffery has a good recruiting class arriving in 2012, the first Hawkeyes fans have seen since the Steve Alford years. Iowa fans could afford to be patient.

If the past week's performances are any indication, they may not need to be. At the very least, Iowa has proved that it won't be terrible. The Hawkeyes rank No. 87 in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings; their offense is averaging 1.08 points per possession on the season. Defense has been an issue, but in the past two games the Hawks have allowed an average of 1.0 ppp -- a massive improvement made all the more impressive by the fact it happened twice on the road. If Iowa can maintain that level of defense, it can score with Big Ten opponents.

Of course, the Hawkeyes are hardly a Big Ten title contender. A top-half Big Ten finish, a .500-or-better record, is still a long way off. But Iowa has, at the very least, proved one thing: It isn't terrible. Given this program's struggles in the past decade, its desperate search for relevance both locally and nationally, and its early-season performance -- again: this team lost at home to Campbell -- that alone is an accomplishment.