DES MOINES — The Iowa men’s basketball team will return on Saturday to the scene of one of its worst defeats last season.
And just like a year ago, a formidable opponent from the Missouri Valley Conference will be there to test the Hawkeyes again.
Iowa (8-2) will face Northern Iowa (6-3) Saturday afternoon in the inaugural Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Drake and Iowa State will play in the second game.
Iowa is 0-1 in the 17,000-seat arena, losing to Creighton 82-59 in a late-November game last season that got out of hand early and stayed that way.
Creighton’s beat-down also came three days before little-known Campbell delivered a similar blow, pounding Iowa 77-61 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes went on to lose three of their next five games, including back-to-back road losses to Northern Iowa and Iowa State, but eventually found their way under head coach Fran McCaffery. Iowa has a 21-13 record since suffering through that skid last season, including an 8-2 mark this season.
“I think we’ve moved past that and learned from the past,” said Iowa junior forward Zach McCabe. “I think it’s prepared us to be the team we are this year and just pushes us to be better every game.”
It also helps to have a deeper and more talented roster, which is the case for Iowa compared to last season.
No one player is being asked to fill the void left by the graduation of all-Big Ten guard Matt Gatens, but there is strength in numbers this season.
McCaffery has used an 11-man rotation for much of this season, although, he only went nine deep during last Friday’s 80-71 victory against Iowa State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa has combined youth with experience to win games this season. Six of the top eight scorers returned from last season and were joined by a heralded freshmen class.
Three of the freshmen are now starting, including at both guard positions, but the youth movement hasn’t divided the team.
“We know as a team to be able to accomplish our goal, which is going to the NCAA Tournament, that sometimes you have to sacrifice some things for the team,” said McCabe, who started the first seven games before losing his spot to freshman point guard Anthony Clemmons. “We’re a team and we’re going to stick together through this.
“The veteran players are ready to come in whenever we need them.”
Two of Iowa’s freshmen – combo guard Mike Gesell and 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury – have started every game this season, while Clemmons has started the last four.
Clemmons leads the team with 34 assists while committing just nine turnovers. Gesell has 33 assists and is third on the team in scoring with an 8.5 average. Woodbury is ranked second on the team in rebounding with a 5.0 average and is shooting a team-best 63.8 percent from the field.
“I knew that us freshmen had a chance to come in and make a big impact this year,” Gesell said. “I didn’t know how big of an impact or how things would play out.
“But we’re just out there working hard every day and just trying to do what’s best for the team.”
Northern Iowa, meanwhile, is known for working hard on defense and for being disciplined and poised on offense. The Panthers have split their last 12 games against Iowa and they won easily in the most recent matchup 80-60 last season in Cedar Falls.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was ejected from last season’s game against Northern Iowa after being called for two technical fouls.
He was asked this week if he feels his team has moved beyond being routed by an opponent.
“I’d like to think we are,” McCaffery said. “But that’s always a possibility if you’re playing a three-point shooting team, if you’re playing a team that all the sudden they make 13 (three-pointers) and you make one. The three-point shot has changed that dramatically.”
Iowa’s two losses this season came in back-to-back game against Wichita State and Virginia Tech by scores of 75-63 and 95-79, respectively.
However, both games were more competitive than Iowa’s game against Creighton was last season at Wells Fargo Arena.
“Nothing that happened last year (against Creighton) is going to help us Saturday, I can tell you that” McCaffery said. “Hopefully, we’ll just be better than we were then.”
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball