As a graduate of Drake University, this Big Four thing is a real bummer.
We’re told that it’s a reason to celebrate having the state’s four Division I men’s basketball teams participate in a doubleheader on a neutral court in our capital and largest city. But that depends on your point of view, which depends largely on which of the four schools you either attended or now support.
The inaugural Big Four event – I refuse to call it the Big Four Classic – will be held Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, with Iowa (8-2) facing Northern Iowa (6-3) in the first game and Iowa State and Drake squaring off in the second game.
We in the media, including yours truly, will cover this inaugural event like it’s the moon landing. But a part of me will have mixed emotions knowing what was sacrificed to make it happen.
Never again will my alma mater get to experience the thrill of hosting Iowa or Iowa State in a regular-season men’s basketball game.
Never again will my alma mater get to reap the financial benefits and exposure that come with hosting a sold-out game on campus against the Hawkeyes or Cyclones.
Never again will my alma mater get to play both Iowa and Iowa State in the same regular season.
Northern Iowa is in the same position as Drake, forced to accept this doubleheader masquerading as a classic or risk losing the chance to play Iowa and Iowa State altogether.
All four schools have agreed to a four-year contract to stage the event at Wells Fargo Arena, which has a seating capacity of approximately 17,000. Iowa and Iowa State will continue to play each other on a yearly basis, but will rotate matchups against Drake and Northern Iowa at Wells Fargo Arena.
The current setup might not last beyond the four-year agreement, but it’s hard to see it ever going back to how it was before.
Folks at Iowa and Iowa State would like you to believe that this one-day event was created largely as a result of having fewer scheduling opportunities during the nonconference portion of the schedule.
Scheduling opportunities have dwindled with Big Ten teams now playing 18 conference games, but not to the point where you had to change what already was a good thing and without the question the highlight to the nonconference part of the schedule.
It seems more a case of Iowa and Iowa State not wanting to face Drake and Northern Iowa on the road anymore because the risk outweighs the reward. Gone are the days when the Bulldogs and Panthers offered little resistance against their more prestigious instate foes.
Northern Iowa has been to more NCAA Tournaments since 2004 than Iowa and Iowa State have been combined. The Panthers have split their last 12 games against Iowa and won five of their past six against Iowa State. Drake has won three of the past six games against the Hawkeyes and four of its past six against the Cyclones.
Those in favor of the Big Four event also like pointing out that most high-majors don’t have home-and-home nonconference games scheduled against mid-major opponents.
And while that’s true, it still doesn’t make it right.
We’ve got a unique setup in Iowa with four Division I men’s basketball teams located within about 150 mile radius of each other, and with no professional teams to hog the spotlight.
A one-day event will be exciting for that one day. But under the previous setup, the instate games helped carry us into the holidays, one enjoyable game at a time.
It’s been a quarter century since I was a student at Drake, but I still remember that playing host to Iowa and Iowa State in men’s basketball was a highlight to the experience. And that was back when Drake played its home games at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Des Moines.
Drake now has its own arena on campus called the Knapp Center, and yet the Hawkeyes and Cyclones never will face that hostile environment again.
That just seems wrong.
It also seems wrong that Drake and Northern Iowa won’t have the opportunity to play Iowa and Iowa State on the road anymore. Playing on a neutral court might be easier than facing the hostility inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena and Hilton Coliseum, but few things are more satisfying in sports than winning on an opponent’s home court.
Drake doesn’t have the chance to play Iowa and Iowa State in football, let alone host the games, because they compete in different worlds. Northern Iowa plays Iowa and Iowa State in football, but never as the host team and usually as a heavy underdog.
Basketball is different because all four teams compete at the Division I level. And with Drake and Northern Iowa vastly improved, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to home-court advantage.
Saturday’s event would be closer to being a classic if it were played on back-to-back days, with the winners advancing to a title game. That’ll never happen, though, because under that setup Iowa and Iowa State inevitably would face each other, making their annual home-and-home showdown a lesser event.
Drake and Northern Iowa also would risk facing each other at least three times during the regular season because as members of the Missouri Valley Conference they already play twice.
So don’t fool yourself. Des Moines is Drake’s hometown, but the Big Four event belongs to Iowa and Iowa State.
As frustrating as it is from Drake’s perspective, it has to be even more frustrating for Northern Iowa because the Panthers have been the best team in the state by far over the past decade, and yet have no real say in this situation.
It’s sort of like being told that you can still hang out with the two popular kids on the block, but only on their terms.
Sometimes, life just isn’t fair.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball