Opinion | Men’s basketball year in review: Was Iowa’s season successful despite the tournament loss?

This year’s Hawkeye team accomplished a lot, but its season wasn’t supposed to end in the second round of March Madness.


IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) hugs guard CJ Fredrick (5) after their 95-80 loss against the Oregon Ducks during the second round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 22, 2021, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. Mandatory Credit: Sam Owens/IndyStar via USA TODAY Sports

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — This was supposed to be the season for the Iowa men’s basketball program.

And by “the season,” I mean this team wasn’t supposed to end its season with a 95-80 loss to seventh-seeded Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Hawkeyes boasted the best player in the country, All-American center Luka Garza, returning to the lineup. And with Joe Wieskamp (a future NBA player), Jordan Bohannon (now the program’s all-time leader in 3-pointers and assists), and the team’s deep bench, Iowa had its best roster in decades.

Expectations were high. Like Big Ten Champions and NCAA title contenders high.

But now that we’ve reached the end, was the season a success?

Well, it’s complicated. I can see the rationale for both the “yes” and “no” side of that question.

Fran McCaffery’s team accomplished a lot in the most unique men’s college basketball season I will ever see (hopefully). More on that later. At the same time, the deep tournament run that this team was capable of never happened.

I think Garza said it best.

“I felt like this was a team where our season wasn’t supposed to be over [in the second round of the tournament],” Garza said Monday. “That’s upsetting to me because everybody in that locker room worked so hard to be able to get back to this moment, and it’s upsetting that we couldn’t be able to excel and win the game. That’s obviously the most upsetting thing.”

To say Iowa’s season wasn’t successful is harsh.

Iowa’s No. 5 ranking in the preseason AP poll was its highest in 65 years. And the team stayed in the top-10 for all but one week of the season. The Hawkeyes won 14 games in the toughest conference in the country (well, at least before the tournament started) and earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament, their best since 1987.

RELATED: ‘It’s heartbreaking’: Luka Garza exits the floor for final time in Hawkeye uniform

Garza became the program’s all-time leading scorer and has earned a seemingly endless number of accolades for the second season in a row.

And all this happened as a pandemic raged in the background.

This was by far the best season of McCaffery’s 11-year tenure as Iowa’s head coach. It is probably the program’s best season since the Tom Davis era.

“You always feel a little bit empty when your team loses and you’re eliminated,” McCaffery said Monday. “But I tried to stress the incredible amount of positive things that happened, the great things we accomplished this year, the great things we have accomplished… I wanted them to know how much I appreciate them; how proud I am of them, and how much I love them.”

But while Iowa accomplished so much this season, at the same time, a lot of what teams are remembered for is what happens in March. And Iowa exited the big stage early.

The Iowa men’s basketball program hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since March of 1999. I wasn’t even born yet. This was supposed to be the Hawkeye team to advance to the second weekend of the tournament. Instead, its season is over, and it ended in a familiar place.

This was supposed to be the season for Iowa. The season the team won its first Big Ten regular-season championship since 1979 — to win more than one game in the tournament.

The potential of this team was so high that Monday’s loss, at least for the time being, overshadows all that was accomplished beforehand.

“To come here again and fall short again and not being able to get to the Sweet 16 and beyond, that’s heartbreaking,” Garza said. “… I just feel bad that I wasn’t able to lead this team to where it needs to go, and we did a lot of really, really good things this year, and it just hurts that we weren’t able to do it when it mattered most, and that’s something that’s going to haunt me forever.”

Yes, this past season was one of the most successful in program history. But it’s what could have been that leaves a bitter taste behind.

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