Register sports writers Andrew Logue, Chad Leistikow and Tommy Birch preview the matchups of the Big Four Classic between Iowa vs. Drake and Iowa State vs. UNI. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
Wells Fargo Arena is both a special and forgettable place for Iowa’s Peter Jok and Drake’s Kale Abrahamson -- former high school basketball teammates at West Des Moines Valley.
They hope to create new, positive memories Saturday afternoon in downtown Des Moines when their college teams face off at the sold-out Big Four Classic. But only one can emerge a winner as Iowa (7-3) meets Drake (4-6) in a 3:30 p.m. game that will be Web-streamed on ESPN3.
One thing’s for sure -- there will be no shortage of family watching Jok and Abrahamson, whose last game together was at Wells Fargo in 2012.
And it didn’t go so well.
“My last game there wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” Abrahamson recalled. “I think my ankle was the size of a cantaloupe.”
The then-senior had sprained his ankle the previous week in substate action and was held to 3-for-9 shooting in a 66-60 Class 4-A quarterfinal loss to Sioux City East -- a team that featured current Iowa center Adam Woodbury. The outing for Jok, then a junior, was even worse -- 2-for-11, four fouls, 10 points.
But there’s a reason Jok says of Wells Fargo, “I love it over there.”
He once scored 31 of Valley’s 51 points in a game against a team from Overland Park, Kansas. The former Des Moines Roosevelt prep also worked out there as a youngster with former Iowa Energy coach Nick Nurse.
Abrahamson and Jok are juniors, eligibility-wise, and enjoying career years. They also could find themselves matched up on each other Saturday at times. Abrahamson (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) and Jok (6-6, 205) are most comfortable on the perimeter.
“I’m sure we’ll find ourselves guarding each other at some point,” Abrahamson said.
Abrahamson, who sat out last season after transferring from Northwestern, scored 41 points in his fourth game as a Bulldog. He’s averaging 16.1 points a game after averaging 4.4 at Northwestern in 65 games -- six of which came against Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes.
Jok, meanwhile, is playing the best basketball of his life. He’s averaging 13.4 points a game and has emerged as the Hawkeyes’ No. 2 scoring option behind Jarrod Uthoff.
Jok’s emergence has stemmed from eating healthier, which has improved his conditioning, and becoming more than an outside shooter.
“He wanted to play more his freshman year, but coach obviously told him the reason why he wouldn’t because he wasn’t playing any defense,” Woodbury said. “He’s made that adjustment this year. There’s no reason to sit him out now.”
McCaffery has seen tremendous growth in Jok, whose talent was on display in scoring 14 points in a second-half span of 3 minutes, 35 seconds in last week’s 83-82 loss at Iowa State.
“I told him his game as a freshman, he had a sloppy game,” McCaffery said. “He would fumble and stumble and run around and just try to shoot jumpers and make that the cure for everything. He needed to become a really good basketball player. I'm really proud of him because you do that when you have character.”
Even last year, Jok was up and down. In last year’s 56-44 Big Four Classic loss to Northern Iowa, he shot 2-for-9.
This time at Wells Fargo, his game is in a better place. He said he’ll have 30 to 40 people close to him -- including his brother, Dau, and the family of his guardian, Mike Nixon, on hand. Abrahamson’s parents, who now live in Chicago, and other extended family are planning to attend, too -- if they can find tickets to the two-game event, capped by Iowa State-Northern Iowa at 6 p.m. (“They’re going to have to go on StubHub or something,” Abrahamson joked, noting his four-ticket limit.)
More than proving something to each other, both teams have business to settle. The Hawkeyes are trying to wipe the taste of that meltdown at Hilton Coliseum out of their mouths, and the Bulldogs are hungry to prove they’re better than their record -- with four of their losses coming by eight points or less.
“We have a really good team,” Abrahamson said. “I know that. My teammates know that. Our coaches know that. We just have to prove it. We haven’t proven it yet, which is really annoying.”
After the game, Jok will get to share Christmas with his family. But that’s the secondary part of his trip home.
“I’m not going there for the family,” he said, “I’m going there to win a game.”
BIG FOUR CLASSIC: IOWA (7-3) VS. DRAKE (4-6)
When, where: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
TV: ESPN3 (online at ESPN3.com)
Radio: Iowa radio: WHO-AM (1040), KXIC-AM (800) and the Hawkeye network; Drake announcers: KRNT-AM (1350) in Des Moines.
Matchup breakdown: Grab your seat early to watch 6-foot-9 senior Jarrod Uthoff, who has averaged 27 first-half points in Iowa’s last two games. … The Hawkeyes have won four straight in the series, including an 83-66 win in the 2013 Big Four Classic, after dropping three in a row (2006-08). … The teams have one common opponent in UMKC; Iowa beat the Kangaroos, 95-75; Drake lost, 78-73. … The Bulldogs will present one of the biggest front lines Iowa will face all year in 7-foot Europeans Jacob Enevold of Denmark (4.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Dominik Olejniczak of Poland (4.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Guard Reed Timmer is Drake’s top playmaker (19.0 ppg, 55.1 percent shooting). … Iowa coach Fran McCaffery on Drake coach Ray Giacoletti’s team: “They run good stuff. He's got three very talented scorers. He's got a couple big kids that are impressive. He's got some athletes on the wing, so you can see him kind of putting it together piece by piece. … This is a team that has really impressed me on film.”