A 20-11 regular-season record and 9-9 mark in the Big Ten wasn't enough to get Iowa into the NCAA tournament a season ago.
If the 24th-ranked Hawkeyes' poor stretch continues Saturday night in their regular-season finale against visiting Illinois, they'll again enter the Big Ten tournament at 20-11 and 9-9.
With four losses in five games, the Hawkeyes (20-10, 9-8) now need a win over the Fighting Illini (17-13, 6-11) and a Nebraska home loss to No. 9 Wisconsin this weekend to secure a first-round bye with the fourth seed. An Iowa loss paired with an Ohio State home win against 22nd-ranked Michigan State would drop the Hawkeyes to the sixth seed and potentially complicate their status as a lock for an at-large NCAA bid.
That might not have been as much of an issue had Iowa given Michigan State more of a fight Thursday in East Lansing. The Hawkeyes trailed by as many as 19 points in the 86-76 loss while the Spartans shot 58.3 percent and knocked down 10 of 17 3-point attempts.
"You've got to give them credit," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "They were making them. They were shooting them in rhythm. Some of them were tough. But some of them were wide open, so that's our fault."
Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble finished with 24 points. The senior guard has reached the 20-point plateau in a career-best five straight games and is averaging a team-high 17.3, but that hasn't always been good for the team. Iowa is 5-8 when he tops his season average.
"I don't think we made the adjustments to come out in the second half and be successful," Marble said. "Then, they started to come out and make some shots."
Opponents have shot 44.1 percent from long range in the Hawkeyes' last five games. Still, Iowa's perimeter defense against Michigan State was preferable to Illinois' in its most recent game.
Illinois had its only three-game conference winning streak of the season snapped in an 84-53 home loss to Big Ten champion Michigan on Tuesday.
Guard Rayvonte Rice led the Illini with 16 points and nine rebounds as they suffered their worst loss of the season, yielding a 56.9 percent shooting effort and 16-of-23 mark from beyond the arc.
"The game today doesn't erase the fact that in the past two to three weeks we've played the best we played this year," coach John Groce said.
The Illini had held four straight opponents under 50 points and were coming off last Saturday's 53-46 win at Michigan State before allowing an opponent to crack 80 points for the first time since Iowa did so Feb. 1.
Marble scored 17 in that 81-74 win at Illinois. Illini guard Joseph Bertrand scored 20 while Rice had 13 points and nine rebounds as Iowa won its third straight in the series.
Illinois is 2-7 against ranked opponents but has won three of four road games in the last month.