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Hawkeyes stumble into Big Ten tourney

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa is likely just days away from its first NCAA tournament berth in eight years, but that's about the last thing on the mind of its fan base.

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They're wondering what happened to their beloved Hawkeyes.

Iowa (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten) finished the regular season in a freefall hardly anyone saw coming.

The Hawkeyes have lost five of their last six games - all after a postponement at Indiana altered their schedule - and closed with a brutal home loss to Illinois, 66-63, on Saturday night.

Iowa, once a trendy pick for a long run through the postseason, somehow managed to finish with the exact same regular season record as it had a year ago when it went to the NIT.

The Hawkeyes hope to start fresh on Thursday against Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

''We've got to get back to playing hard defensively. Get back to making the game fun,'' Iowa forward Aaron White said. ''We lost our swag, lost how we were playing, lost our confidence. And when you lose that, it's not as fun. We had a phenomenal practice (Monday) and really got after it. I kind of look at this as a new season. It really doesn't matter what happened. Clean slate and start over.''

The Hawkeyes probably won't have to sweat out an NCAA tournament bid. They've played a strong schedule that features seven road/neutral wins and five victories over teams in the top 50 of the RPI as of Tuesday.

But there's a big difference between making the NCAA tournament and doing something once you get there.

It's not a good sign when your own coach describes you as ''fragile'' following the regular season finale, which Fran McCaffery did after the Illini stunned the Hawkeyes on a 3 just before the buzzer.

Defensive lapses have been a big issue for Iowa, which has allowed at least 75 points and been outrebounded in five of its last six games.

Those are both signs that the Hawkeyes could use some fresher legs. But that's not going to happen, especially after the loss to Illinois helped cost the Hawkeyes a bye in the Big Ten tournament.

Even a berth in the league title game would mean four games in four days for Iowa.

''We're not as in sync as we were, and I'm hopeful that we've been able to go back to some of the basic things that we needed to fix,'' McCaffery said. ''There's not one thing. It's collective. And I think the encouraging thing for us is this particular team has played excellent defense this year. And that's what our goal is, to go back and play that kind of defense again.''

For many teams, the one-and-done nature of March can erase a tremendous regular season in a single shot.

For Iowa, it's a chance to erase two weeks of misery and re-ignite a resurgence that lasted nearly all season.

The Hawkeyes remain one of the nation's deepest teams, and they've shown in spurts that they can play with anyone. But Iowa is undoubtedly playing worse than it did a month ago, and teams that enter the postseason in trouble typically don't fix themselves in March.

The trick for the Hawkeyes, according to White, is simply to rediscover the form that made them so dangerous to begin with.

''Despite losing five of six, a month or two ago we were a top-10 team. None of that talent is gone. No one is hurt,'' White said. ''There's no reason to lose the confidence that we built over the season.''

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