Northern Iowa’s basketball program was king in the spring of 2010.
The Panthers had just put the wraps on a 30-5 season, a victory over top-seeded Kansas and an appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Iowa and Iowa State went a combined 25-38. It was the fourth straight losing season for the Cyclones, and third for the Hawkeyes.
But two days that spring changed the landscape of basketball in this state.
Fran McCaffery was hired to replace Todd Lickliter as Iowa’s coach on March 29.
Fred Hoiberg was hired to replace Greg McDermott at Iowa State on April 28.
Four seasons later, the balance of basketball power in Iowa has shifted heading into Saturday’s Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Hoiberg’s fourth Iowa State team (6-0), fresh off back-to-back NCAA appearances, is ranked 17th heading into a 5 p.m. game against Northern Iowa (3-4). McCaffery’s fourth Iowa team (8-1), ranked 23rd, meets Drake (6-1) in the 7:30 p.m. nightcap.
“I think it’s certainly a credit to what Fred and Fran have done, and to what their players have done and are doing right now,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “These games with Iowa and Iowa State have always been our biggest non-conference games. The fact that both are ranked just adds to the excitement of it.”
First-year Drake coach Ray Giacoletti is new to this in-state experience, both in its current form and the previous home-and-home agreements that disappeared with last year’s inaugural Big Four Classic.
“We’re playing a ranked opponent on a neutral floor,” Giacoletti said. “You don’t get those opportunities very often. Most times you have to go to their place and play.”
This is the first time Iowa and Iowa State have been ranked in the Associated Press poll at the same time since the 2005-06 season. In the seven seasons that followed, Iowa was never ranked. Iowa State was there for one week late in the 2011-12 season. Northern Iowa was rated for three weeks in 2006-07 and for four in 2009-10.
The Panthers, with five NCAA bids since 2004, have won nine of 43 games with Iowa. Five of them have come in the last decade. Northern Iowa has won three straight against Iowa State, and six of the last eight.
Drake has won four of the last seven games against Iowa State. And after losing 27 straight to Iowa, the Bulldogs strung together three straight starting in 2006. Iowa has won the last three.
Jacobson, who has coached the Panthers to at least 20 victories in five straight seasons, said that success against the state’s power schools helped carry his program to new heights.
“These games just carry more weight,” Jacobson said. “So whether it’s the game that follows, or the week after, or the rest of the non-conference schedule, or recruiting and how your program is viewed nationally, I don’t think there’s any question that this game has ramifications on all those things and has a lot to do with our program moving forward. This is an important game for all those reasons.”
The Big Four Classic has erased some tradition. Iowa State and Drake won’t play for the first time since the 1937-38 season. But Giacoletti still sees value in the game with the Hawkeyes.
“If it was anywhere else it would be (at Iowa), in a guarantee situation,” Giacoletti said. “This is where the college landscape is. This is a great opportunity. I’m sure there will be a great crowd there.”
McCaffery and Hoiberg bristle at the notion that with Iowa and Iowa State back in vogue nationally, Saturday’s games won’t be as challenging as in years past.
“I don’t know that it matters what people think,” McCaffery said. “It’s what the people think. It would appear obvious to me that these are two really good teams. They have given us problems. And when we’ve won, it’s taken everything we’ve had. We’re playing a team that is 6-1 and just went to California and won three games in three days. I don’t know what else you have to do to get people’s attention.”
Are the big boys — Iowa State and Iowa — back to being the top dogs?
“Shoot, I don’t know that that’s the case,” Hoiberg said. “Look at Drake. They’re what, 6-1? UNI’s been close in some high-major games. They’re going to be close games. You have to play your game. And if we do that, I’ll take our chances against anybody.”
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IOWA STATE (6-0) vs. NORTHERN IOWA (3-4)
Specifics – 5 p.m., at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Following the game – TV: Mediacom Channel 22; Radio: KDRB (100.3 FM) and KXNO (1460 AM)
Preview – UNI has beaten Iowa State three in a row, and five of the past six times they played. “It’s hard to score against them in transition,” ISU coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They do a great job controlling the tempo.”
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DRAKE (6-1) vs. IOWA (8-1)
Specifics – 7:30 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Following the game – TV: Mediacom Channel 22 and BTN2GO.com (live-stream, online); Radio: KRNT (1350 AM) and WHO (1040 AM)
Preview – The Hawkeyes are averaging 90.0 points per game, led by Devyn Marble’s 16.8. A win would make Ray Giacoletti the second coach in Drake history to begin his tenure with a 7-1 record.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball