By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Saturday’s Hy-Vee Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines will mark the end of an event that probably shouldn’t have been started in the first place.
No. 22 Iowa will face Northern Iowa at approximately 6 p.m., and that game will come after Iowa State and Drake meet in the first game.
This is the seventh and final year for the Big Four Classic, and the end of Iowa playing Northern Iowa and Drake for the foreseeable future unless they should happen to meet in a postseason tournament.
The four instate programs used to compete against each other on a home-and-away basis, but that arrangement was discontinued in 2012 in favor of the Big Four Classic due to scheduling concerns.
Iowa and Iowa State both say it’s too difficult to maintain a home-and-away series with Drake and Northern Iowa because there aren’t as many open dates on their nonconference schedules as there used to be.
And though there is some truth to that, especially in Iowa's case, with the Big Ten Conference having expanded to 20 conference games, and with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge filling one spot every year, there still would be enough open dates to play Drake and Northern Iowa on a home-and-away basis if Iowa and Iowa State truly wanted to play them, but they don’t.
And that’s their prerogative, but you still don’t have to like it.
“Obviously, it’s tough when we moved to twenty league games to try to change our schedule a little bit,” said Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer. “But we’re looking forward to playing at Wells Fargo again, and obviously, against a tough opponent like UNI.
“It’s a lot of fun for people in this state and we’re looking forward to it.”
I’ll admit that I’m biased in this case as a Drake graduate. We used to always look forward to Iowa and Iowa State facing the Bulldogs in a hostile environment at Veterans Auditorium in downtown Des Moines.
Drake has since built its own on-campus arena called the Knapp Center, so I couldn’t even imagine how excited the Drake students must have been when the Hawkeyes and Cyclones would play there.
I respected Iowa and Iowa State for playing Drake and Northern Iowa on a home-and-away basis because it was good for instate morale, because it was risky and a challenge, and because so few other power five teams were willing to do the same thing against their instate competition.
Those who feel that Iowa shouldn’t play Drake or Northern Iowa on a home-and-away basis often use the fact that so few other power five programs play a home-and-away series against a mid-major program from in state, let alone play two.
But what’s wrong with being unique in this case?
What’s wrong with being the one state where all four Division I programs are treated equally?
It seems that Iowa would benefit more in the long run from playing in a hostile environment at Northern Iowa or at Drake than facing a completely overmatched opponent from a different part of the country at home.
I understand the need to accumulate wins during the nonconference schedule, but what ever happened to embracing a challenge?
It wasn't necessary to start the Big Four Classic because the previous setup in which all four schools faced each other on a home-and-away basis was ideal, other than the risk of losing in a hostile environment.
Some will say that Iowa has nothing to gain, but plenty to lose by facing Northern Iowa and Drake on a home-and-away basis.
But what would Iowa or Iowa State gain by not playing them at all?
It seems pretty obvious that Iowa and Iowa State both decided to discontinue the home-and-away setup with Drake and Northern Iowa due to the risk of losing on the road.
Iowa hasn’t played Northern Iowa at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls since losing 80-60 on Dec. 6, 2011 in a game in which Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was ejected.
McCaffery was asked on Thursday about the possibility of re-establishing the home-and-away setup with Northern Iowa and Drake, but he didn't seem optimistic or interested in seeing it happen.
“I don't really think about it,” McCaffery said. “Down the road, I wouldn't say it's not a possibility. I wouldn't say no. I wouldn't say yes.”
The Big Four Classic has certainly had its moments and the attendance has been respectable.
But many of the games haven’t been competitive, including Iowa’s 90-64 victory over Drake last season.
Iowa is 5-1 overall in the event, its only loss coming against Northern Iowa by a score of 56-44 in 2014.
Iowa should have the advantage over Drake and Northern Iowa with regard to talent and potential, but playing in a hostile road environment sometimes causes those gaps to shrink.
Wells Fargo Arena is an impressive facility, but the atmosphere has been stale at times for the Big Four Classic.
There has been very little drama because the two mid-major programs don’t have the advantage of playing at home, and sometimes they have struggled.
And now Northern Iowa and Drake don’t even know when or if they’ll ever play Iowa again.
That’s a shame because this separation could and should be avoided.