On one hand, the Iowa basketball team’s Big Ten opener against fifth-ranked Indiana is just one game, the first step in a long and grueling journey through the Big Ten Conference.
But on the other hand, it’s a chance for the 11-2 Hawkeyes to make a statement before a sellout crowd on New Year’s Eve at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It’s also a chance for Iowa to get off to a successful start in what figures to be a rugged 18-game conference schedule.
And it’s likely that Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has looked at it from both hands in order to get his players ready for the daunting task of facing Indiana.
“What’s important is that we play well and we play the way we are supposed to play against a really good team,” McCaffery said Friday when asked about the importance of getting a signature win. “Obviously, we really want to win. And, obviously, if you can make a big impact, you can win.
“But we recognize who were are playing and we recognize that we are going to have to play better than we’ve played up until now.”
Iowa is playing an Indiana team that is deep, talented, and until recently, the top-ranked team in the country. Indiana (12-1) dropped four spots in the rankings after losing to Butler 88-86 on Dec. 15 in Indianapolis.
Butler prevailed in part by making 11 3-point baskets and by outrebounding Indiana, including grabbing 19 offensive rebounds. It’s the only game this season in which Indiana has been out-rebounded.
“They are a phenomenal rebounding team,” McCaffery said of Indiana.
The presence of 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller is a big reason why the Hoosiers dominate the glass with regularity. Zeller was a dominant force as a freshman last season and nothing has changed a year later.
He leads Indiana in scoring and rebounding with per-game averages of 16.4 and 8.1, respectively, and is averaging a team-leading 1.25 blocks per game.
“I didn’t think he had too many flaws last year,” McCaffery said when asked how Zeller has improved from his freshman season. “I just think he’s a little bit older, a little bit smarter, a little bit better.”
Zeller is hardly a solo act, though.
His supporting cast includes Victor Oladipo, a dynamic wing player, sharpshooting guard Jordan Hulls, power forward Christian Watford and freshman point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell.
Hulls is one of the top 3-point shooters in the country and gets many of his open looks in transition where the Hoosiers thrive under head coach Tom Crean.
Indiana as of Friday was ranked first nationally in scoring (89.1) and scoring margin (29.8), second in field-goal percentage (52.1) and fourth in rebounding margin (13.2) and 3-point field-goal percentage (41.9).
McCaffery said the addition of Ferrell has made the players around him better.
“Obviously, Ferrell has made a dramatic impact on that team and has taken a lot of pressure off everybody else,” McCaffery said. “It’s enabled Hulls to…he’s just killing it from the three. He’s playing at a high level and doesn’t have to worry about handling the ball as much.”
Ferrell and Hulls will be matched against Iowa’s freshmen backcourt duo of Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell.
Gesell sort of knows what to expect from Ferrell after competing against him at least twice on the AAU circuit in high school.
“He’s very quick,” Gesell said. “He’s tremendous at getting into the lane and creating for teammates. And that’s something we’ve got to do, we’ve got to contain him and keep him in front of us.”
Iowa and Indiana split their two games last season, with both teams winning by double digits at home. But Iowa has won 11 of the last 16 meetings, including the last four in Iowa City.
Some of Iowa’s recent victories came while Crean was trying to get Indiana back to elite status. The Hoosiers suffered through three consecutive losing seasons under Crean before finally breaking through last season with a 27-9 record.
Iowa is also making strides under McCaffery, who is in his third season as head coach. McCaffery led the Hawkeyes to the second-round of the National Invitation Tournament last season and now his current team is being projected by some bracketologists as an NCAA Tournament qualifier for this season.
Iowa hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2006, but a victory over Indiana would serve notice.
“It’s a top-five team, it should be a great test to see where we stand in the Big Ten,” said Iowa junior guard Devyn Marble.
The New Year’s Eve tilt also is the kind of circumstance with a sellout crowd expected that McCaffery envisioned when he took over at Iowa in 2010.
“Yeah, I hoped to get to the point where our fans wanted to come back and identified with this team and got behind this team and appreciate how hard they have worked,” McCaffery said.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball