UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Before visiting (and beating) then-AP No. 4 Michigan State at the Breslin Center, Iowa basketball players spoke of taking the fight to the Spartans.
They did exactly that on Jan. 14 in one of the nation’s most raucous arenas, leaving with a 76-59 win that shaped the Hawkeyes’ march to sole possession of first place in the Big Ten Conference.
The approach for sixth-ranked Iowa (20-5, 11-2 Big Ten) will be the exact same for Wednesday’s game at Penn State (12-13, 3-9) — though the building’s energy will be entirely different.
The 15,261-seat Bryce Jordan Center might be half-full when the teams tip off at 5:31 p.m. CT. Might. Yet for whatever reason, it can be a vexing venue for opponents.
“This is probably one of the toughest arenas to play in,” Iowa senior Anthony Clemmons said.
“That question I can’t answer. I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been tough all four years I’ve been here. I don’t think, myself in particular, I play well when I play there. Us as a team, it’s always been a close game there.”
Iowa star forward Jarrod Uthoff may have put a finger on it.
“Because they’re a scrappy team,” Uthoff said. “Their coach (Patrick Chambers) has implemented a culture that they’re going to try to outwork people. And you have to go in there and beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves. It’s going to be tough.”
Clemmons and Uthoff speak the truth. And even though the Hawkeye senior class has a 3-0 record at the Bryce Jordan Center, none of the wins have come easily.
In 2013, Iowa pulled out its first win in Happy Valley since 2006 when Devyn Marble blocked a tying layup attempt with 21 seconds left in a tense 74-72 outcome.
In 2014, the Hawkeyes trailed at halftime until breaking away late for an 82-70 victory behind 31-of-40 free-throw shooting.
In 2015, Iowa escaped with an 81-77 win after Aaron White’s rope-a-dope steal of a D.J. Newbill pass with 30 seconds left in overtime.
And don’t forget, it was the 13th-seeded Nittany Lions who stunned No. 5 seed Iowa on Thursday at last season’s Big Ten Tournament.
Of course, this is a different Hawkeye team, one that manhandled Penn State on Feb. 3 in Iowa City, 73-49, and has a one-game lead in the Big Ten race over Indiana and Maryland. Penn State is a bad 3-point shooting team (28.9 percent, 339th in Division I through Monday), but it was worse than bad at Carver-Hawkeye Arena: 1-for-20.
“They had open looks that didn’t go in. That’s rare,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “It was one of those games for them.”
Three days later, Penn State stunned now-No. 21 Indiana, 68-63, in the Bryce Jordan Center. (See, it’s not just Iowa that struggles there.)
Whether the Hawkeyes face the Penn State version that beat Indiana or the one that lost by 27 at home to Michigan State, they cannot control.
But what would help Iowa’s chances is a revived performance from the reserves. In the last three games, including Sunday's 75-71 win over Minnesota, McCaffery’s bench has combined to score just 14 points on 4-for-20 shooting from the floor and 4-for-10 from the foul line in 105 minutes.
There’s a theory why McCaffery’s two most reliable non-starters, sophomore Dom Uhl and freshman Nicholas Baer, haven’t had a big scoring impact of late.
“As the season goes on, (opponents) are guarding them differently perhaps,” McCaffery said Tuesday. “There’s been a couple games where they haven’t got as many minutes.
“The good thing about them, when they’re closely guarded, they’re going to move the ball on. That’s how we play. If they’re open they’ll shoot it. If they have an opportunity to drive, they’ll drive it. If they’re covered, they’ll pass it. That’s what you want them to do.”
McCaffery acknowledged of the starting five that’s averaging a collective 33 minutes over the past three games, “We’ve got to keep these guys rested.”
But there’s not usually time to breathe against Penn State in Happy Valley, even entering a sleepy arena that has averaged just 6,785 fans a game this season.
Clemmons has been preaching that to his teammates, a mentality that was enhanced after seeing Chambers talk about his team during a recent Big Ten Network episode of “The Journey.”
“I (watched) and the coach said they’ve had great practices,” Clemmons said. “I think they’re going to be ready for us. And we’re going to be ready for them.”
NO. 6 IOWA (20-5, 11-2) AT PENN STATE (12-13, 3-9)
When, where: 5:30 p.m. CT Wednesday, Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.
TV: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Shon Morris)
Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius Channel 145, XM Channel 195.
Game notes: Iowa hasn’t been in first place in the Big Ten this late in the season since it was tied for the lead on Feb. 23, 2006, with a 9-4 record. … All of Iowa’s losses are to currently ranked teams by single digits: No. 5 Maryland, No. 13 Dayton, No. 15 Iowa State, No. 18 Notre Dame and No. 21 Indiana. … Penn State is coming off a 70-54 loss at Nebraska. … Iowa gets its second bye after this game and will return to action Feb. 25 in an 8 p.m. home game vs. Wisconsin.