Ready or not, here it comes.
The 7-5 Iowa men’s basketball team will start to find out on Wednesday if the Big Ten Conference is as good as advertised when it faces 23rd-ranked Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Five of Iowa’s first six conference games will be against nationally-ranked opponents. That includes a home game next Tuesday against undefeated and second-ranked Ohio State.
First-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday on a teleconference that he feels the Big Ten has so far lived up to its billing as the deepest and most talented conference in the country.
“I really do, and I think it will hold true the rest of the season as well,” McCaffery said. “And I think the reason for that is, obviously, there are good players and terrific coaches.
“But we have a year where we have experienced, veteran players. And those are the guys that over the long course of the season produce in tight games. They’ll be a lot of tight games the rest of the way. There have been a lot of tight games so far. And those are the guys that typically make the plays at the end.”
Illinois (10-3) has the kind of veteran roster to which McCaffery was referring, with three seniors in the starting lineup, including all-Big Ten point guard Demetri McCamey. He leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally with an average of 7.1 assists per game.
The Big Ten also has been helped by a youth movement, with Ohio State freshman sensation Jared Sullinger leading the way as a high-scoring power forward.
Iowa also has three freshmen — forwards Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe and guard Devyn Marble — ranked among its top seven scorers.
And though having such a young roster could cause problems during the Big Ten schedule, McCaffery doesn’t have the luxury of being able to ease them into action as he tries to rebuild the program.
Of Iowa’s first six Big Ten opponents, Northwestern is the only one that isn’t currently ranked. But the Wildcats are still 10-1 heading into conference play and many feel this could be the season when Northwestern finally makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
“I think the Big Ten is by far the deepest (conference),” said former Iowa player Kenyon Murray, who along with Gus Johnson, will call the Iowa-Illinois game for the Big Ten Network. “This is a year when you can look at four or five or maybe six teams that can make a legitimate run in the (NCAA) tournament.
“I think the other conferences maybe have one or two other powerhouses. But I think the (Big Ten) is up for grabs this year.”
Murray has called most of Iowa’s games this season for the Big Ten Network. He feels a new energy inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and has noticed a change in the players as well in terms of their attitude and performance.
He singled out junior center Andrew Brommer, who played sparingly under previous head coach Todd Lickliter, but now is making a more significant contribution under McCaffery.
“I think the fact that they’re having fun, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Murray said of the Iowa players. “And you have guys that haven’t given Iowa much the last couple years really stepping up and playing. I mean they’re different players.
“And I guess I say that thinking of Andrew Brommer. He’s just a kid that has so much more confidence now.”
Iowa is coming off three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the early 1930s and is picked by most to finish either at or near the bottom of the Big Ten this season.
But Murray still sees progress being made under the new coaching staff. He especially likes how the players never back down or quit hustling.
“They play hard,” Murray said. “They make mistakes that young teams do. But the one thing is that they never give up. There has never been a game where you felt like Iowa just completely shut down and you didn’t feel they had a chance to win.”
Murray also likes that McCaffery coaches hard and with emotion. McCaffery already has been called for two technical fouls this season.
“I think what Fran and his staff have really infused is the (belief) that if we play this way and we execute and we play defense as hard as we know we can, we’ll have a chance to win,” said Murray, who played at Iowa from 1992-96 and now lives in Cedar Rapids with his wife and three children. “And I think that’s what makes it exciting.
“Plus, Fran has gotten a few technical (fouls) and that keeps everybody on the edge of their seats.”
There were approximately 14,000 tickets sold for the Illinois game as of Tuesday morning according to the Iowa sports information office.
Illinois figures to bring its share of fans, but Murray also likes the vibe he’s getting from Iowa fans.
“I think that people are excited because they do see that light at the end of the tunnel,” Murray said. “I’ve got people asking me, ‘where can we get the game?’ And that’s something that hasn’t happened the last few years. Even outside of the arena, people are excited about just at least watching the games and getting to know the players and coaches and things like that.
“So I think the energy is up. Do we still have a long way to go? Yeah. But it’s nice to have people asking what time Iowa plays and not talk about football.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball