IOWA CITY, Iowa – The annual December showdown between Iowa and Iowa State in men’s basketball never will have the pageantry that accompanies the football rivalry, but it’s usually a better game.
No disrespect to football, but the competition on the field, and the circumstances surrounding the game, usually fall short compared to men’s basketball.
Both programs have slumped at times in men’s basketball over the past three decades. But unlike football, Iowa and Iowa State both have had success at the same time on numerous occasions in men’s basketball, including this season.
Iowa State is ranked fourth nationally under first-year head coach Steve Prohm, while Iowa (7-2) is one of the most experienced teams in the country with four seniors, including fifth-year senior Jarrod Uthoff, and a anjunior in the starting lineup. The Hawkeyes also are coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances under sixth-year head coach Fran McCaffery.
The teams will square off Thursday at Hilton Coliseum, whose magic is equaled by only a few venues in college basketball.
One notable absence will be Fred Hoiberg, who is now coaching the Chicago Bulls after rebuilding his alma mater and turning Iowa State into a national power.
It might feel different without the soft-spoken Hoiberg coaching the Cyclones, but the product on the floor won’t look much different, according to McCaffery.
He praised Prohm for his handling of Iowa State’s veteran roster and for how Prohm has fit into an already made-to-win situation in Ames.
“I think Steve has done a real good job of connecting with the players that he has and understanding their particular skill sets and letting them play,” McCaffery said Wednesday on a teleconference. “They’re playing with a great deal of confidence. And that’s I think indicative of the job he’s done.
“They run good stuff. Some of it’s new. A lot of it is the same. But ultimately, that team is successful because of their ability to share the basketball, recognizing that there are a lot of different guys who can score and make plays.”
Prohm came to Iowa State from Murray State, where his record was 104-29 over his last four seasons. Thursday’s game will be a much bigger stage than what Prohm faced at Murray State. But Prohm also didn’t have the players at Murray State that he has now at Iowa State.
From do-everything forward Georges Niang to dynamic point guard Monte Morris to post-player extraordinaire Jameel McKay, the Cyclones are loaded once again. It’ll basically be the same group of players that whipped Iowa 90-75 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last season.
The Hawkeyes just always seemed a step slow on defense a year ago. Iowa State punished Iowa in transition and opened the second half on a 21-2 scoring run. The Cyclones also drained 12-of-27 3-point shots, with several coming in transition.
“The thing about it is of the seven guys they play most of the time, six of them are really good 3-point shooters,” McCaffery said. “So I think that makes it difficult for any team that plays against them. You’ve got to get back and you’ve got to matchup pretty much with everybody. And McKay is running to the front of rim and if you don’t guard him he’s going to get an ally-oop and dunk the ball.
“So that’s a difficult team to defend in transition. That’s why intelligent shot selection is going to be important, intelligent decision making in general because they’re especially good off blocked shots, off turnovers and bad shots, they’re really, really tough then in transition.”
Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell is excited to face the power of Hilton Magic and to have a chance to make up for last season’s loss to Iowa State.
“We had a pretty bad taste in our mouth after that game,” Gesell said. “We felt we didn’t play very well. And anytime you lose big like that to an instate rival, it’s not fun.
“But it’ll be another great matchup for us. Another chance to go into a road environment.”
The good news for Iowa is that the 6-9 Uthoff enters the game on a hot streak. It’s rare when Uthoff doesn’t play well. But he has elevated his game to a higher level this season, probably in response to former all-Big Ten forward Aaron White having moved on.
Uthoff scored a career-high 27 points in Monday’s 90-56 drubbing of Western Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He drained three 3-point baskets during an 80-second flurry in the first half and had 24 points by halftime.
“He’s our guy and we want to go to him,” McCaffery said. “We need him to produce on a consistent basis.
“I’ve had some really good players over the years, sometimes as a head coach and sometimes as an assistant, and he ranks up there with a lot of the guys.”
Thursday’s game will be filled with intriguing individual matchups, including in the post where McKay will be pitted against 7-1 Iowa center Adam Woodbury.
“Every time I step on the court I want to win,” Woodbury said. “Obviously, they’ve got a very good team and we’re excited to play them. We really are.”
Iowa State has won the last two games in the series and the home team has won eight of the last 10. The Cyclones edged Iowa 85-82 in 2013 in Ames.
Put all those facts together and it’s clear that this rivalry stands above all others that match the Cyclones against the Hawkeyes. Thursday’s game looks to be another exciting chapter.
Iowa vs. Iowa State
When: 6:31 p.m. Thursday
Where: Hilton Coliseum, Ames
All-time series: Iowa leads, 43-25