CHICAGO — Must win.
That’s the mentality the Iowa men’s basketball team faced heading into the opening round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday night. And if the Hawkeyes want to advance to the NCAA tournament, they likely have to win — at the very least — two games this week.
After opening up the game with 11 straight points before Northwestern even scored, the Wildcats closed the gap throughout the second half and put a little scare into head coach Fran McCaffery’s squad.
But it wasn’t enough.
Iowa (21-11) held off the Wildcats (13-19) to win its opening round game, 73-59, in the United Center on Thursday.
“We kept possession a lot in the second half despite us struggling,” Eric May said. “Keeping the clock going was on our side. We made some big shots towards the end, too.”
Devyn Marble provided a threat down the stretch for the Black and Gold, something the team has lacked for a majority of the season. The junior posted 19 points including 9-for-12 from the free-throw line, a few of those in the final minutes.
Mike Gesell made his return to the starting lineup after missing four straight games. The freshman point guard didn’t miss a beat, and evaded any pressure he had in his first collegiate postseason action.
The Sioux City, Neb., native recorded 13 points and 3 assists, includes a 2-for-4 performance from 3-point range.
“It felt great to be back out there,” Gesell said. “When I was out, I just tried to cheer the guys on. It was nice to contribute again.”
Now comes the uphill battle.
The Hawkeyes will play Michigan State on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the conference tourney, seeking to further improve upon their résumé. Heading into Thursday’s matchup, the numbers were so-so.
RPI of 76, BPI of 48, and most notably, No. 30 in KenPom.
Still firmly in the bubble discussion to advance to the Big Dance, the Hawkeyes need to avenge their winless record against top tier Big Ten teams this season. They have lost to Indiana (twice), Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State.
With a matchup on the docket against the Spartans (24-7, 13-5), this is the most significant game for the program in seven years.
The last time the Hawkeyes made it to the NCAA tournament? Seven years ago.
“I’m not foolish. I here what everyone is saying about tomorrow night’s game,” McCaffery said. “I’m very comfortable where our résumé is right now, and I think we deserve to be in, but there are so many factors.
“The only thing we can control is how we play tomorrow.”