By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Should the Iowa men’s basketball team win at Minnesota on Sunday, it would improve to 13-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten.
That looks pretty good for a team that just a week ago was reeling and being written off for dead by some following an 87-78 loss at Wisconsin that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.
Iowa fell to 1-3 in conference play with the Wisconsin loss and there was growing concern that the season would spiral in the wrong direction.
Iowa eased those concerns by defeating Indiana 83-74 this past Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and up next is a Big Ten road game against a new-look Minnesota team that is rebuilding under first-year head coach Ben Johnson, and is also depleted in some ways in the wake of a roster overhaul that occurred after Richard Pitino was dismissed as head coach shortly after last season.
But don’t let roster changes or Minnesota’s 1-4 Big Ten record fool you, because the Gophers have been competitive in almost every game this season.
That was especially true in their most recent game – a 71-69 loss at Michigan State this past Wednesday. The Spartans prevailed on a last-second basket by Joey Hauser.
Minnesota also has road wins at Pittsburgh, Mississippi State, and at Michigan where it defeated the Wolverines 75-65 on Dec. 11.
“The impressive thing is the job he has done in just getting a group of guys who are talented, but getting them to all buy in and play together,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said of Ben Johnson, who played basketball at Minnesota in the 1990s. “I think that’s the hardest thing.
“He’s got pieces that fit and they’re competing.”
Pitino’s dismissal after eight seasons led to a mass exodus of players.
Johnson scoured the country for players, but he didn’t have a lot of time, nor did he have his pick of players from Power 5 conferences.
He raided what would be considered mid-level programs for players such as Jamison Battle, who is from Minnesota, but started his career at George Washington.
Battle leads Minnesota in scoring at 17.9 points per game.
Minnesota’s starting guards Elyijah Stephens and Luke Loewe transferred from Lafayette and William and Mary, respectively.
The Gophers are dangerous, but they’ve also lost four of five conference games.
So, there should be a sense of urgency for both teams heading into Sunday’s 1 p.m. tip-off at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Iowa is 0-2 in Big Ten road games, and at some point, a team has to win some conference games on the road if it hopes to make the NCAA Tournament.
The difference from being 3-3 and 2-4 in conference play is bigger than it might seem from just a record standpoint.
Iowa doesn’t want to spend a big part of conference play chasing a .500 record.
Part of the challenge for Minnesota will be to contain the Murray twins.
Keegan Murray, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, began the week as the nation’s leading scorer, but his twin brother Kris Murray, a 6-8 sophomore forward, led Iowa with a career-high 29 points and 11 rebounds in the victory over Indiana.
Iowa needed somebody to step up with Keegan Murray hampered by foul problems, and his twin rose to the occasion.
The Gophers could be without 6-9 forward Eric Curry due to an ankle injury that occurred in the loss at Michigan State this past Wednesday.
Curry, a sixth-year senior, is listed as day-to-day heading into Sunday’s game, and has had two full seasons erased by knee injuries.
He has started all 14 games for the Gophers this season and scored a team-high 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 29 minutes against Michigan State.
Iowa vs. Minnesota
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Minneapolis, Williams Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: Iowa Radio Network
Records/rankings: Iowa is 12-4, 2-3 in the Big Ten and unranked. Minnesota is 10-4, 1-4 and unranked.
Series: Minnesota holds a 107-98 advantage in the series. The 205 meetings are the most Iowa has played against any opponent. The two teams have split the last 10 contests, including both meetings a year ago, dating back to 2015. Eight of the last 11 meetings, dating back
to 2014, have been decided by seven points or less.
The Gophers own a 66-36 advantage in games played at Minnesota. Seven of the last nine meetings at Williams Arena have been decided by six points or fewer, dating back to 2012, with the other two contests being decided in overtime in 2020 (102-95) and
double overtime in 2017 (101-89).