By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On paper, it doesn’t look good for the Iowa men’s basketball team against Iowa State.
Just do the math.
Nebraska-Omaha defeated Iowa 98-89 last Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but was then crushed by Iowa State 91-47 two days later in Ames.
That’s a 63-point differential for those counting.
Iowa State is 6-2 overall and led by a one of the top point guards in the country in senior Monte Morris, while Iowa is 4-5 and has true freshman Jordan Bohannon preparing to make his fourth career start at point guard.
Iowa is also without two key frontline players with freshman forward Tyler Cook and senior forward Dale Jones both sidelined by hand injuries.
The odds will certainly be stacked against the Hawkeyes on Thursday, but the game also presents a tremendous opportunity for a new group of Iowa players who hope to make statement and to make senior guard Peter Jok happy for a change after facing the Cyclones.
Jok was a senior in high school the last time Iowa defeated Iowa State on Dec. 7, 2012 by a score of 80-71 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
He reminded his younger teammates about Iowa’s recent history against the Cyclones in the locker room after Monday’s 95-68 victory over Stetson.
Jok is friends with some of Iowa State’s key players, including Morris and guards Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas.
“We talk trash a lot, especially with me and Monte,” Jok said. “I’m going to do everything I can to win. My teammates got my back. It’s a big rivalry game. So we’re definitely going to be ready for that.”
Iowa State has won the last three games in the series, but two of the games, both in Ames, weren’t decided until the closing seconds. Iowa State prevailed 85-82 in 2013 and 83-82 last season.
In between those two games was a 90-75 Cyclone victory in 2014 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
No one thing will decide Thursday’s game, but point guard play, of course, will be crucial.
Morris will test Bohannon in ways that Bohannon hasn’t experienced this season.
Iowa already has faced some talented point guards this season, including Virginia’s London Perrantes, but each is different, as Fran McCaffery pointed out Wednesday on a teleconference with reporters.
“I would say he’s probably the closest to the total package that I’ve seen,” McCaffery said of Morris. “The ability to score, push it defend, make plays, make plays late, go off the dribble, be a distributor, be facilitator and then go be a scorer then be a driver. That’s been impressive to me.”
Iowa received some good news about Ahmad Wagner, who suffered what proved to be more a painful scare than a serious injury against Stetson on Monday.
Wagner collapsed to the floor in pain after leaping high for a rebound and landing awkwardly on his knee. He immediately grabbed his knee and started screaming in pain as Carver-Hawkeye Arena fell eerily silent.
It appeared to be the latest setback for a team that already has been hurt by injuries at the forward position.
But the diagnosis was a hyperextended knee that won’t cause Wagner to miss Thursday’s game, according to what McCaffery said Wednesday.
Wagner’s athleticism and aggressiveness will be needed in order for Iowa to pull off the upset, as will some productivity from 3-point range.
It’s hard to picture Iowa winning without two or three players being productive from 3-point range. Jok almost always is a force from 3-point range, while Bohannon and 6-5 redshirt freshman Isaiah Moss are showing signs of being that.
Freshman forward Cordell Pemsl also should have an impact on Thursday’s game. The 6-8, 249-pound Dubuque native scored 21 points against Stetson and is shooting a blistering 77.6 percent from the field.
Pemsl grew up watching this rivalry, but never has seen a game in person between the Hawkeyes and the Cyclones.
“All on TV, so this is first time experiencing it,” Pemslsaid. “It might be a little overwhelming when I first take the floor. But I know those never will be over when the ball is jumped up.”
Both teams like to run, so it’s unlikely that Iowa could slow the pace like Cincinnati did while defeating the Cyclones 55-54 in overtime last Friday in Ames, snapping Iowa State’s 37-game home winning streak against non-conference foes.
Iowa State has four players who average in double figures as scorers, led by Morris and fellow senior Deonte Burton with averages of 14.8 and 14.1, respectively.
All five of Iowa State’s starters are seniors, including two redshirt seniors.
That experience and maturity has helped to create an unselfish team under second-year coach Steve Prohm.
“Any team that’s going to be good shares the ball, and that’s what they do, and that’s what’s impressed me” McCaffery said.
It all starts with Morris.
The Michigan native has a mixture of physical and mental strengths that make him highly effective.
“It’s his ability to make the right decision and that’s a challenge for any team that will play them,” McCaffery said of what makes Morris special. “And it always has been since he got there.
“You’ve got to put pressure on him and defend him as hard as you can, and make it as tough for him as possible.”
Iowa should catch a break by playing at home, considering the home team has won nine of the last 11 games in the series.
However, there were 2,000 tickets still available for Thursday's game as of Wednesday afternoon, and you wonder how many of the fans will be there to support the Cyclones.
Iowa would need a home-court advantage to help pull off an upset.
Kinnick Stadium was alive on the night Iowa defeated Michigan in football on Nov. 12. The fans provided the players with some much-needed energy.
The Iowa basketball players will need that same energy to beat the Cyclones.