CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Get ready for the most hype yet surrounding this year’s Iowa basketball team.
The Hawkeyes on Sunday proved yet again that they’re for real, dominating Illinois for a 77-65 road win. They’re all alone atop the Big Ten Conference standings with seven games to go. On Monday, No. 5 Iowa received first-place votes in the latest national polls for the first time this season. Now comes a full four days of buildup for Thursday’s ESPN-televised showdown at No. 22 Indiana in one of the nation’s most historic college arenas.
Iowa will be the hunted at Assembly Hall, and for the rest of the season. That’s the new reality of being in the nation’s top 10 for the fourth consecutive week. With a combined 14 first-place votes from pollsters, the topic of national contender will surely come up during ESPN's Thursday broadcast with Rece Davis and Dick Vitale on the call. And you can bet Indiana will be motivated to change that narrative.
Just like the state saw leading up to the Iowa caucuses, whoever stood at the center of the debate stage typically felt the fiercest attacks.
“Whenever you’re at the top, (the target) increases,” Iowa senior guard Anthony Clemmons said. “I remember being 6 or 7 (in the Big Ten), chasing No. 1. You want that team to lose. To be there, it’s great. But we have to continue to stay hungry. We haven’t done anything yet.”
The good news for the Hawkeyes (19-4, 10-1 Big Ten) is that they’re getting used to taking everyone’s best shot.
Maybe that’s why quickly after the program’s first back-to-back wins in Champaign in 29 years, Iowa players turned their attention toward the Hoosiers (19-5, 9-2) — who can force a three-way tie atop the Big Ten merely by doing something it has had 100 percent success at this season: winning at home.
“It’s a must-win over there,” said Iowa’s Peter Jok, whose 23 points led the way against the Fighting Illini for Iowa’s fourth Big Ten road win. “We talked (in the locker room), and we’ve got to go over there and do what we do every game. It’s going to be a good game. It’s one of the loudest places I’ve been since I’ve been here.”
Interestingly, this will be the fourth straight Iowa-Indiana game to take place in Bloomington.
But Iowa clearly isn’t intimidated by any road venue. It’s won 12 of its last 17 true road games, including a domination of the Hoosiers a year ago in Bloomington, 77-63. No wonder Iowa point guard Mike Gesell calls going to Assembly Hall “fun.”
“Tough environment. One of the best teams in the country,” Gesell, a senior, said. “It’s going to be a fun atmosphere. We’ve been able to get some wins there before; we know what it takes there.”
Among the challenges ahead for Iowa ...
... Facing a motivated opponent that almost certainly has to win to keep realistic Big Ten regular-season title hopes alive. With a loss the Hoosiers would fall two games behind Iowa, with a trip to Michigan State next and a visit to Iowa City waiting on March 1.
“Never gets easier,” Iowa senior Adam Woodbury said. “Every time we win, the next one gets tougher.”
... Going against the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have enjoyed scuffling opponents in their last three games — Northwestern shot 42 percent against Iowa, Penn State 30 percent and Illinois 39 percent. Indiana shoots a stunning 51.1 percent from the floor — second nationally only to St. Mary’s (51.4 percent).
... And then there’s the 9 p.m. Eastern-time tipoff — the latest start time Iowa will have in 30 regular-season games.
Don’t worry too much about that one, though — or the national spotlight, with more and more teams rooting for the Hawkeyes to lose.
“We’re very self-motivated. We don’t need crowds to get us going. We don’t need big games, big prime-time TV games to get us going,” Gesell said. “We want to win every time we step on the floor. You see that even in our practices. Our practices are super-competitive like that. I think that’s really how we get going, whether it’s a morning game or an 8 or 9 p.m. game.”