By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the Iowa men’s basketball team, the stage, the opponent and the opportunity will all change dramatically in its next game on Thursday.
That’s when Iowa will face No. 16 Oregon in the semifinals of the 2K Empire Classic at legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The 2-0 Hawkeyes did what they were supposed to do by defeating heavy underdogs Missouri-Kansas City and Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first two games of the season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Now they have a chance to do what few expect them to do on Thursday, which is defeat Pac-12 preseason favorite Oregon coached by Dana Altman.
The game is part of the 2K Empire Classic with Syracuse, coached by Jim Boeheim for a 43rd consecutive season, and Connecticut, under the direction of first-year Danny Hurley, meeting in the other semifinal on Thursday.
The winners and losers will then meet on Friday.
“You’ve got three programs in New York that are really some of the elite programs in our game and elite coaches as well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Wednesday on a teleconference. “Obviously, Dana and Jim have been around longer than Danny Hurley, but the Hurley family, there’s a coaching tree that’s pretty special.
“But UCONN, Syracuse and Oregon, that’s why we’re going. We want to go to the Garden and play them. We want to play those quality teams, and you know you have to be ready. They’ve got talent. They’re well coached. They’ve got veterans. And you’re on a big stage. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Iowa has a lot to prove in the wake of last season’s stunning decline, but winning the first two games of this season was more a case of avoiding disaster than making a statement.
A victory over Oregon, on the other hand, would make a loud statement and provide some much-needed hope that last season’s 14-19 record, including a miserable 4-14 record in conference play, was just a temporary setback that was caused mostly by Iowa performing poorly on defense.
McCaffery was asked about playing two games in two games and whether that would impact his approach to Thursday’s game, which could start after 9 p.m. CST.
His answer made it obvious that McCaffery isn’t looking ahead to anything. His only concern is doing whatever it takes to beat Oregon.
“I don’t know that there is any magic formula,” McCaffery said. “I think the first thing you do is try to win the first game. And whatever it takes to win that game, that’s what you’re going to do personnel-wise. I’m not going to be looking to Friday and saying we’ve really got to have fresh legs or fresh people. We’re trying to win on Thursday. And when we get to Friday, we’ll deal with Friday.
“With that said, I think we’ve got enough bodies to handle two games in two days. I’m going to rotate my personnel and keep some fresh bodies out there they best I can. But you’re coming down the stretch, you’re probably going to have your key guys out there.”
Iowa already is without sophomore forward Jack Nunge on the frontline, with him having decided to redshirt, and could be without junior forward Cordell Pemsl, who still is recovering after landing awkwardly in a recent practice and suffering a lower leg injury.
“He’s still day to day,” McCaffery said of Pemsl. “He did not practice yesterday. We’ll see if he does today, and then make decision tomorrow.”
The current Iowa team has 90 percent of the scoring back from last season and it took care of business in the first two games. But the opponents left much to be desired from a perception standpoint, so there still is a wait-and-see attitude with this Iowa team.
A victory on Thursday would maybe shorten that wait.
Splitting the two games would also provide a spark because all three of the opponents are respectable.
Iowa needs to avoid losing both games because that would be perceived as a troubling carryover from last season, and it would be costly from a resume standpoint.
The Iowa players, and the Iowa fans, need something positive to happen to help erase the stench from last season.
Iowa has a ways to go to be relevant again, but a victory over Oregon would certainly serve notice.
“I like where we’re headed,” junior forward Tyler Cook said after the victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay. “We’ve got a few days now to get ready and prepare, and I think we’ll have a good time.”
Redshirt freshman Connor McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery's son, has provided a spark at point guard where starter Jordan Bohannon had little help last season.
Connor has shown a knack for feeding Iowa's post players, including 6-foot-11 center Luka Garza, in favorable positions to score.
"I think it takes some of the pressure off of everybody," Fran McCaffery said of Connor's impact as a pass-first point guard. "We didn't have a lot of experience there last year. And I think it provides a different kind of situation for us. It just gives me a lot more flexibility."
Oregon is coming off a season in which it lost to Marquette in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
But thanks to Altman signing what some considered a top-five recruiting class, expectations are on the rise again.
Oregon is led by senior point guard Payton Pritchard and by one of the top newcomers in college basketball in 7-2 freshman center Bol Bol, who is the son of former NBA player Manute Bol.
“He’s really a unique talent and they’re using him really well,” McCaffery said of Bol. “They’re moving him around. You think of a 7-2 guy, and you think, okay, he’s going to be down low, and he does go down low. But he starts up top. He starts at the wing. He can play pretty much anywhere on the floor. He can play in an up tempo game. He can play in a half-court game.
“They do a really good job of sharing the ball and that starts with the fact they have a real good point guard, I think a very unselfish team and they know that they can go to a number of different people for offense. So there might be times when they go to (Bol) a lot. But they also might go away from him and go to people that can score.”
Iowa will have played four of its last six games at Madison Square Garden by the end of Friday's game.
Madison Square Garden was the site of last season's Big Ten Tournament where Iowa defeated Illinois in the first round before losing to eventual NCAA runner-up Michigan 77-71 in overtime in the second round.