IOWA CITY, Ia. – Glenn “The Stick” Vidnovic sits across the aisle from me at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
He started for Coach Ralph Miller’s 1969-70 Big Ten championship team that lost a 104-103 heartbreaker to Jacksonville in a first-round NCAA game. Back then they had consolation games, and the Hawkeyes ended the season with a 121-106 rout of Notre Dame.
That’s the last time Iowa defeated the Irish until Tuesday’s 98-93 victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. When Tuesday’s game was in its infancy, I asked Vidnovic how many points he scored in that 1970 game. He pondered the question for a moment, then said, “25.”
Close, I told him, after checking the box score that showed he scored 24 points, made all 10 free-throw attempts and added 11 rebounds.
“Not bad,” Vidnovic said.
And then the kind of offensive fireworks that Vidnovic’s team displayed on a nightly basis unfolded before a sellout crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Notre Dame shot 51 percent from the field, scored 93 points … and lost. How hard is it to beat a team that does that?
“Extremely hard,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Unless you’re shooting 57 percent, you’re not winning.”
McCaffery followed that up with a smile. Translation: If his team plays a steady diet of defense in the Big Ten like it did Tuesday, there’s trouble in River City.
Maybe a fourth game in six games, with travel problems getting from the Bahamas back to Iowa City Sunday, left the Hawkeyes a step slow against the Irish. And maybe the Irish exposed some areas Iowa needs to shore up.
McCaffery came to Iowa with an offensive reputation, and he’s lived up to that billing. His first Hawkeye team averaged 67.2 points a game. It’s early, but this deep team is averaging 90. Field-goal shooting percentage is up from a season ago, from .419 to .469. Three-point shooting has increased, from .305 to .392. And free-throw shooting is at 74.6 percent, compared to 73.1 last season.
“They have a style of play that’s hard to deal with,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Because they’re good offensively, and they come at you with a lot of bodies.”
Defense has steadily improved under McCaffery’s watch, too. Iowa allowed 72.5 points in 2011-12, just 62.8 last season. Teams are averaging 64.6 this season.
This Hawkeye team, 8-1 heading into Saturday’s game with Drake in the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, will carry the weight of NCAA Tournament expectations on its shoulders between now and Selection Sunday in March.
“I’m excited to win it more for the impact it will have for our resume,” McCaffery said after Tuesday’s track meet with the Irish. “(Notre Dame) is a team that is going to be in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been (there). We want to get in.”
Iowa hasn’t been there since 2006. That 2005-06 season is the last time Iowa won an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game. It was a sleep-inducing 45-42 victory over North Carolina State in 2005. Both the Hawkeyes and Irish scored more points, on their own, than the two teams did in that 2005 snoozer.
Iowa could never get Notre Dame’s guards under control. And the next challenge is a Drake team, off to a surprising 6-1 start, that has a very good guard tandem in Richard Carter and Gary Ricks, Jr.
“We’ll definitely be ready for the Big Ten, with all the competition we’ve been coming up against lately,” Iowa’s Devyn Marble said. “We’ve still got Drake, a really good team. I don’t know if people realize that. Iowa State is definitely a good team, and we’ve got to go (there, on Dec. 13). I think the only thing they’ll do is test us and help us come New Year’s Eve.”
That’s the Big Ten opener, at home against Nebraska. And one thing is quite clear: No defense, no celebration.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball