By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – If misery truly loves company as the old saying suggests, then the players from Iowa and Minnesota should be thrilled to face each other on Wednesday in Minneapolis.
The 8:05 p.m. game at Williams Arena will match arguably the Big Ten’s two biggest disappointments in men’s basketball this season.
Northwestern also deserves consideration for that dubious title, but there is no disputing that Iowa and Minnesota have failed miserably to meet expectations.
The Gophers won 24 games last season and were thought to be a serious contender for a Big Ten regular-season title this season, along with Michigan State and Purdue, both of whom have lived up to expectations.
However, the suspension of center Reggie Lynch and the season-ending injury to forward Amir Coffey have crippled the Richard Pitino-coached Gophers. Lynch was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season, a true rim protector, while Coffey was a double-digit scorer this season.
“They’re a different team without Coffey, for sure,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday on a teleconference. “But he’s been out for a while, so new guys have been able to step in and expand their roles.”
After starting 13-4, including winning its first seven contests of the season, Minnesota has lost 11 of its last 12 games. The lone victory was a 95-84 overtime victory at Penn State on Jan. 15. The Gophers also have lost their last five home games after starting the season 10-1 at home.
As for Iowa, it was considered NCAA caliber heading into the season with four returning starters from a 19-win team that barely missed making the Big Dance last season.
But the combination of horrible defense and a depleted backcourt caused by the transfer of point guard Christian Williams and the season-long health issues of freshman guard Connor McCaffery has ruined any chance that Iowa to be successful.
Both teams are 3-13 in the Big Ten and assured of playing on the first day of the conference tournament as one of bottom four teams in the conference. The Gophers have a slightly better overall record than Iowa at 14-15 compared to 12-17, but any way you slice it, both teams have been huge disappointments.
Iowa has lost each of the its last five road games by at least 14 points, while Minnesota is coming off a 73-63 overtime loss at Wisconsin on Monday in which it led by seven points with 6 minutes left in regulation. The Gophers missed their final seven field-goal attempts in regulation.
And now here they are hosting Iowa just two days later as a result of the Big Ten’s condensed schedule due to the conference tournament being a played a week earlier than usual this season in order to stage the event at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I always go back to the same thing, it’s no advantage or disadvantage because everybody is in the same boat,” McCaffery said. “We’re all playing with a condensed schedule and you’ve got to play three games in one week.”
Iowa won the first game against Minnesota this season 94-80 on Jan. 30th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes haven’t won since and are in serious danger of finishing in last place in the conference.
But they have outscored their Big Ten opponents in the second half this season, as McCaffery was reminded on Tuesday by a member of the media, who then asked if it meant anything.
“I think it says a couple things; it says that we’re going to keep coming and we’re going to keep grinding and we’re able to as coaches and players make some adjustments that work,” McCaffery said. “It tells me that we have an unselfish team. If we’re outscoring our opponents in the second half we don’t have guys going for themselves.
“So I think, all in all, it’s a positive. But at the end of the day, you want to outscore them in both halves, or at least have more than they do at the end of the game. That’s the ultimate bottom line. But I do think that’s a positive sign in many ways and I think it’s indicative that despite our record we’re closer than everybody might think.”
Under the circumstances, it might help to focus on some of the positives because the negatives have been harped on all season, most notably the lack of defense and overall consistency.
Following Wednesday’s game, Iowa will close the regular season against Northwestern on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Forward Dom Uhl, the team’s lone senior, will be honored before the game.
You’d like to think that the chance to compete on a Big Ten stage will be enough to inspire the Iowa players for these final games.
This season has been a disaster, but it hasn’t been any worse than Minnesota’s meltdown.
Wednesday's game will allow one of the teams to at least feel good for a while.
Iowa vs. Minnesota
When: 8:05 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Williams Arena, Minneapolis
TV: Big Ten Network
All-time series: Minnesota holds a 104-95 advantage in the series that began with a 47-10 Gopher win in 1902. The 199 meetings are the most Iowa has played against any opponent.
Iowa has won seven of the last 11 meetings. The two teams have split the last 14 contests and have traded victories in the last seven meetings, dating back to 2014. The Hawkeyes won last month's earlier meeting, 94-80, in Iowa City.
The Gophers hold a 63-35 advantage in games played at Minnesota. Four of the last five meetings at Williams Arena have been decided by six points or fewer, dating back to 2012, with the fifth contest being a double-digit decision in double overtime last season.