Progress. It's all Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has asked for since taking over the program four years ago.
The Hawkeyes, long an afterthought in the Big Ten -- let alone the conference title race, are a program on the rise, built to withstand relentless competition from tournament-regulars like Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Iowa hasn't sniffed March Madness since 2006. It hasn't tasted success since a 2001 first-round victory over Creighton before it was promptly bounced by Kentucky in the next game. Save for a first-round loss to Cincinnati in 2005, that's it. That's the extent of Iowa's NCAA tournament experience over a little more than a decade.
So why should a team so deep with veterans but so short on big-stage experience be considered a player this March?
Know Iowa's win totals from McCaffery's first three seasons? 11, 18, 25. We'll call that progressive.
It doesn't matter that Iowa lost to Wisconsin 79-74 on Saturday. It's the fact that the Hawkeyes expected to win. The game was sold out. Carver Arena was howling. And Fran's squad was gunning to become the third-fastest Iowa team to reach 20 wins in the program's history. A win on Saturday would've done it.
Still, Iowa's seven losses have come by a total of 26 points and none of them was to a team lower than 20th in the RPI. That includes an overtime loss to Michigan State in late January and two losses to Wisconsin by a combined nine points.
"The Big Ten is probably the best conference in the nation, top to bottom, and every night out you gotta go battle. We feel like we can beat anybody. It's only going to help us improve for the postseason," point guard Mike Gesell said.
For the first time since 2006, Iowa is in the thick of the Big Ten title race, itching for a chance at a first-round bye at this year's conference tournament. It might not get a title after falling two games behind Michigan State in the loss column, but there's still a chance at the bye. Want a history lesson? The last time Iowa won the Big Ten title was 1979, splitting the honors with Purdue and a Magic-Johnson-led Spartan team.
But this year's team, laced with size, skill and scoring ability, has a chance to shake-up the status quo of the Big Ten. We're talking the top-ranked offense in the conference at 83.6 points per game. Furthermore, the Hawkeyes boast the second-best defensive field goal percentage at 38 percent (which, admittedly, wasn't on full display on Saturday).
And as is mentioned ad-nauseum in the Big Ten, Iowa has a ton of depth. Hawkeye reserves average 32.4 points per game, 20.2 rebounds and three blocks per game. Iowa's bench's rebounding numbers are best in the country, while their scoring and block averages rank third.
Finally, they've got a maturity about them that's a derivative of McCaffery himself. He knows damn-well that Iowa is poised to reach the NCAA tournament this year when he'll become the 10th coach in history to take four separate programs to the Big Dance. But he doesn't dwell on it.
"If we won, [our approach] would be the same," McCaffery said after Saturday's loss.
A testament to their maturity, Iowa hasn't lost back-to-back games all year.
"All year we've done a great job of learning from our losses and not dwelling on them ... We're gonna go back and watch the film and be a better ball club because of it," Gesell said.
And it's easy when guys like Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White and Gesell believe in McCaffery's “one-day-at-a-time” approach. If they didn't, Fran's players would be awestruck with the rankings and the national broadcasts.
Last year's Iowa team, frankly, deserved to reach the NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes were 25-13 overall and 9-9 in conference play -- widely regarded as the tougest in the country. Perhaps finishing as NIT-runner-ups might help them in a tournamament-style setting.
But the losing season in 2010, followed by a mediocre year in 2011, has paved the foundation for sustained success, or in other words, progress.