Something was amiss during Iowa’s Big Ten opener.
It was a shame considering it started with Megan Gustafson breaking the Iowa all-time scoring record with 10 first-quarter points. But the then-No. 16 Hawkeyes couldn’t hold onto a six-point halftime lead against the then-No. 21 Michigan State Spartans, who went on to outscore Iowa 47-27 in the second half en route to the victory in East Lansing, Michigan.
The hope, of course, was that this trend wouldn’t continue, that the Hawkeyes might live up to their predicted second-place Big Ten finish by continuing their established home domination but also grabbing some straightforward wins on the road.
But after their first five games, the Hawkeyes found themselves at 3-2. Their signature win came on the road, but to an initially surging Minnesota team for whom Big Ten play has become a constant struggle. Besides, Iowa fell at unranked Purdue in the game immediately prior, meaning the Minnesota game could have just as easily been a loss, too.
The Hawkeyes have also lost to unranked Michigan and, most recently, Indiana on the road, all the while taking down, at home, the likes of then-No. 14 Rutgers and then-No. 7 Maryland. That the Maryland win and the Indiana loss came in consecutive games, just as Iowa broke into the AP Top 10, is obviously deflating.
A few road losses here and there isn’t bad, expected, even, in such a competitive conference. But when a team projected to compete for a conference championship is 4-4 on the road, something’s up.
The overall strength of the Big Ten in their respective home arenas certainly plays a role, even if it’s a small one. Despite their varying places in the standings, Michigan State (6th), Michigan (4th) and Maryland (1st) have just one home loss apiece, all coming in Big Ten play. Both of Rutgers’ (3rd) home losses came in Big Ten play as well, against its five home wins. It’s clear that beating the top teams on the road is a difficult task for Iowa.
But what of Iowa’s losses to Indiana and Purdue?
The 7th-place Hoosiers are just 4-4 at home in Big Ten play, but they took down an Iowa team that had just knocked off the top team in the conference. Although the sixth-place Boilermakers are 6-2 at home, their only other top-25 win there came against Indiana, who is no longer ranked.
Are road woes against top teams simply an Iowa problem?
The ways Iowa lost on the road varied. While the Michigan State loss saw a complete second-half breakdown, and Indiana won every quarter following a 24-12 Iowa first-quarter lead, the Purdue and Michigan losses saw the Hawkeyes unable to come back from first-half deficits.
To Iowa’s credit, their four road wins were all by double digits … against teams they probably should have beaten by double digits anywhere. But while the Michigan State and Michigan losses could be chalked up to playing in an especially tough environment against two especially tough teams, the other two shouldn’t have happened. Not this season, not with Iowa’s pedigree, star power and the high expectations year after year.
How do other Big Ten teams fare on the road?
Other top Big Ten teams don’t seem to have the same road struggles as the Hawkeyes.
Maryland, the top team in the conference, has lost only two games on the road this season, both in Big Ten play against Michigan State and Iowa. Meanwhile, third-place Rutgers has three Big Ten road losses, including at Iowa and Michigan. But the Scarlet Knights proved themselves in their first away game by stunning then-No. 4 Maryland.
On the one hand, at least Iowa has its 14-0 home record to fall back on. The Purdue rematch on Jan. 27 saw the Hawkeyes win by 14. Against Michigan on Jan. 17 (who Iowa lost to by nice points in their Feb. 1 rematch), the Hawkeyes won once again, by 14.
No other Big Ten team is undefeated at home, and that’s an important distinction.
But come Big Ten Tournament time in Indianapolis — and come the NCAA Tournament (where Iowa has neither won a game since 2015 nor won a game away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena since 2010) — this team won’t exactly have the benefit of home-court advantage. The Hawkeyes need to figure out how to win in a hostile environment, and they need to do it soon.
Next up for the Hawkeyes
Iowa travels to face unranked Nebraska tonight, which the Hawkeyes beat by just six points at home on Jan. 3 in their first game after the Michigan State loss. Unexpectedly, this game is a must-win for the Hawkeyes, who need to prove once and for all they should be in serious contention for a Big Ten tournament title.
Since Iowa couldn’t win its road opener, at this point in the season, winning its final road game needs to carry a similar punch. While a loss would invite further skepticism of the Hawkeyes’ postseason hopes, a win may inspire just enough confidence to propel them to fulfill their natural potential.
No. 12 Iowa Hawkeyes (21-6, 12-4) at Nebraska Cornhuskers (13-14, 8-8)
When: Monday, Feb. 25, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, NE
How to watch: Big Ten Network