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Iowa forward Nicholas Baer breaks down how Big Ten Conference games are different. Plus why this league season has extra meaning. Listen in: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery has been a Division I head basketball coach for 23 seasons and never had a team that will face a more challenging schedule than this year’s Iowa squad.

Not only has the Big Ten Conference expanded its regular-season schedule to 20 games for the first time, but McCaffery said the quality of play in the league hasn’t been this good in his nine years leading the Hawkeyes.

“From top to bottom, this league is brutal,” McCaffery said Thursday. “Every team has depth. Every team has veteran talent.”

The challenge starts Friday for No. 15 Iowa (6-0), which opens Big Ten play with a 7 p.m. home game vs. No. 22 Wisconsin (6-1) on the Big Ten Network.

They are among seven ranked Big Ten teams in this week’s Associated Press poll following a season in which only four conference teams made the NCAA Tournament. Iowa next has a Monday trip to No. 8 Michigan State.

“That’s what you want,” Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer said. “That’s why you come to this level.”

For Baer, the lure of Big Ten play lies in facing better competition night in and night out, but also teams that are very familiar with each other.

And one more thing:

“A greater sense of pride,” Baer said. “It’s not hard to get up for a game against Wisconsin or Michigan State.”

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Iowa center Ryan Kriener is one of just three post players available this season. How does that change his approach? Hear him explain: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Iowa finished a disappointing 4-14 in the Big Ten regular season last winter. Junior center Ryan Kriener said the team’s not thinking about that now, though. He said before the season began Nov. 8, assistant coach Sherman Dillard wrote down the number of days the players had spent getting ready for that moment.

“We put all that work in, we don’t want to waste it. We don’t want to squander it,” Kriener said. “We’ve got to come out and show our improvement every day.”

First up is a Badgers team also stung by its Big Ten showing a year ago. Wisconsin was just 7-11.

The Badgers bring along a national player of the year candidate in senior center Ethan Happ. Happ has had a double-double in all seven games this season, and averages 18 points and 12.3 rebounds.

Happ, a native of Milan, Illinois, is no stranger to Baer. They played AAU ball together. They’ll wait to speak until after the game Friday, Baer said.

Last year, Iowa neutralized Happ for the first half, holding him to four points while building a big lead and winning 85-67 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It was their only meeting of the season.

Kriener knows the defensive effort Friday will need to be just as intense on Happ. At 6-foot-9, Kriener will be one of a trio of Hawkeyes likely charged with bothering the 6-10 Happ. Luka Garza (6-11) and Tyler Cook (6-9) are the others. That’s the extent of Iowa’s depth in the post.

“He has kind of a non-traditional game,” Kriener said of Happ. “He brings it up and he’s in the mid-post and he kind of backs you down two dribbles and then he spins and he spins again and then he (goes) up-and-under and then it’s reverse layup.”

Kriener enjoys sizing up against big stars. He’s done it against Happ, Purdue’s Isaac Haas and Oregon’s Bol Bol in his Iowa career.

“It’s a little bit of an edge that just comes with it,” Kriener said. “That guy’s supposed to be an All-American. So you’re supposed to go give him your best shot. You’re supposed to go at him.”

No Hawkeye has more motivation Friday than point guard Jordan Bohannon. The Marion native grew up attending Badgers games and summer camps. Older brothers Jason and Zach played for the Badgers.

They did not recruit Jordan. Two years ago, Bohannon made them feel some regret by hitting a game-winning 3-pointer in Madison.

He still carries the grudge, however.

“It’s always going to be a thing. It adds another chip on my shoulder,” Bohannon said Thursday with a smile.

“I know I have a lot of chips on my shoulder from back in high school when a lot of schools doubted that I could play at their school, and having two brothers that played at Wisconsin and having a school like Wisconsin not recruit me. There’s more that we can talk about after the game. But it adds another motivation to me.”

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