IOWA CITY, Iowa – A change of scenery and a major step up in competition both await the Iowa men’s basketball team in Thursday’s Gavitt Games matchup.
The 2-0 Hawkeyes will play their first road game of the young season against 1-1 Marquette at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis.
“It’s going to be fun,” Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell said after Sunday’s 103-68 pounding of Coppin State. “That’s why you play college basketball. You want to play the best teams. And we’re going to get to play at Marquette on Thursday and that’s going to be the first test for us.”
Iowa defeated Gardner-Webb 76-59 in the season opener last Friday, but the game was close until the Hawkeyes finally broke away down the stretch.
The 35-point victory over Coppin State, on the other hand, was a mismatch from the opening tip as Iowa bolted to a 22-2 lead and never was threatened.
Four of Iowa’s five starters didn’t even play half of the game against Coppin State because they weren’t needed. Coppin State offered hardly any resistance, but the easy win allowed for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery to empty his bench, giving his younger players valuable experience.
Iowa has six first-year players on the roster, and eight if you include redshirt freshman guard Brady Ellington and redshirt freshman forward Nicholas Baer.
“It’s prepared me a lot,” said 6-foot-7 forward Ahmad Wagner, who is one of five true freshmen on the Iowa roster. “I feel like now that we’ve actually had time on the court, not just practicing, but actually going against another team, I feel like it has us ready to move on.
“Practice and games are completely different. We go hard in practice, but it’s not like a game.”
Wagner and the rest of Iowa’s frontline players will face a tough task against Marquette’s frontline, which features freshman star Henry Ellenson and Indiana transfer Luke Fischer. The 6-10 Ellenson leads four Marquette players who are averaging in double figures with a 19.5 per-game scoring average.
McCaffery tried to recruit Ellenson, who was ranked among the top players in the 2015 high school senior class. But Ellenson’s desire to stay close to his home in Wisconsin ultimately gave Marquette the edge.
“I think he’s a special player,” McCaffery said of Ellenson. “Very few guys his size have the ball handling and passing skills that he has. He’s, obviously, a tremendous rebounder and he can score from anywhere on the floor.
“But I think what separates him is his ability to push it on the break and potentially become the point guard. At that size and with that stature physically, he’s a handful.”
The 6-10 Fischer, who transferred from Indiana, is another handful. He is averaging a double-double in scoring (14.5) and rebounding (10.0) and shooting 68.8 percent from the field.
“That’s another guy we recruited,” McCaffery said. “I think Luke Fischer is tremendous. And I think you’re seeing it come together for him now.
"When you put he and Ellenson on the floor together, that’s two big guys that can do a lot of different things and puts a lot of pressure on any defense. So I’m not surprised he’s doing what he’s doing, either.”
Marquette has split its two games to open the regular season, falling 83-80 to Belmont in its season opener before downing IUPUI, 75-71, in overtime Nov. 16.
It was suggested to McCaffery on his teleconference that Marquette has struggled despite playing against two mediocre opponents. McCaffery didn’t agree.
“I think there are different ways to look at it,” McCaffery said. “You just can’t poo-poo an team just because they’re not in a BCS conference."
McCaffery was optimistic on Tuesday that 6-6 junior guard Peter Jok will play against Marquette after injuring his ankle in the season opener against Gardner-Webb.
"He’s still a little sore, but he got some shots up (Monday) on his off day on his own," McCaffery said. "We’ll probably go easy on him in practice (today), and barring in setbacks, he’ll play."
Thursday’s game will be sort of homecoming for Iowa redshirt freshman guard Brady Ellingson. He grew up near the Marquette campus in Sussex, Wis.
“Everybody is asking me for tickets," said Ellingson, who scored 20 points off the bench against Coppin State on Sunday. "It’ll be really cool playing back home against Marquette.”
This will be the 18th meeting between Iowa and Marquette and the first since an 87-77 Iowa victory in Iowa City in 1982. Iowa has an 8-4 advantage in games against the Golden Eagles in Milwaukee. Iowa won the last contest played in Milwaukee, 86-65 in overtime, in 1981.
Thursday’s game, which tips off at 8 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports 1, also will be a chance for both teams to make an early impression and to see where they stand.
Iowa returns four starters and is coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances under McCaffery, while Marquette is in its second season under head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who is a former Duke point guard and assistant coach. The Golden Eagles struggled with a young and depleted roster last season and only finished 13-19.
Marquette failed to make the postseason in each of the past two seasons after having made eight consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think that’s what these games are for everybody, not just for us because we have some young guys,” McCaffery said. “You’re playing a challenge game in your third game of the season and it’s going to be on television. That’s kind of the idea behind it.
“You’re going to play a meaningful game this early in the season. And play somebody from another conference, another style of play, and obviously, a well-respected program and a great coach in a great venue. That’s what we do. So we’ll see where we are and what we can work on what we do well.”