IOWA CITY, Ia. — The storylines are plentiful for Wednesday’s 8 p.m. basketball game inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but the objective is simple for eighth-ranked Iowa: break through the hype and beat the Badgers.
In the last three years alone, Iowa vs. Wisconsin has produced rivalry-enhancing moments.
In 2013, Iowa rode emotion to hand the Badgers their first Big Ten Conference loss, 70-66, on the 20th anniversary of Chris Street’s death. Just more than two weeks later, Wisconsin returned the favor by the same four-point margin, 74-70, in double overtime after Josh Oglesby’s potential game-winner spun out of the basket.
In 2014, emotions got more heated. On Jan. 5, Iowa lost again by four, 75-71, in a game that saw coach Fran McCaffery get ejected (and later suspended) after bumping an official during a double-technical tirade at the Kohl Center. Almost two months later, Iowa suffered another wrenching loss, 79-74, to Wisconsin that led to a team Twitter ban and started a slide of seven losses in eight games to end the season.
And in 2015, the Hawkeyes’ Adam Woodbury was branded as a public enemy after ESPN’s Dan Dakich called him out as gutless during an 82-50 loss in which Woodbury poked the eyes of Badger players Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky. That great Wisconsin team, which reached the national title game, completed a season sweep of Iowa a few weeks later when star forward Aaron White played in his first game following a stinger injury.
Add those three heated years of buildup for Iowa’s four senior starters, combined with Jarrod Uthoff’s last on-floor chance to get a win against his former team, and this year’s lone scheduled meeting between the rivals is rich with hype.
A breakdown of five storylines to watch:
So much at stake
At 20-6 overall, 11-3 in the Big Ten, Iowa stands a half-game behind Indiana (22-6, 12-3) for the lead. But with three wins in seven days, the Hawkeyes can call themselves at least Big Ten co-champions. And then Iowa could then guarantee an outright title by winning a fourth in a row, March 5 at Michigan, to close the season.
Time seems to have soothed the pain of last Wednesday’s 79-75 loss at Penn State. A players-only meeting held Saturday was more of a reminder to follow the finishing path of the 2015 Hawkeyes (six wins in a row) and not 2014 (total collapse).
“We hope so. Obviously we don’t know yet,” center Adam Woodbury said. “I think this is a different group. We’ve got a lot of young guys that don’t understand what happened two years ago. We’ve got a lot of old guys that have been through the two years ago and then last year when we overcame it. We don’t have a lot of lingering effects from that.”
The Uthoff factor
Uthoff’s exit after one year redshirting at Wisconsin created a national firestorm over then-coach Bo Ryan’s unapologetic approach to restricting Uthoff’s transfer options. Uthoff, of course, wound up at Iowa — paying his own way (and sitting out) for one year.
Uthoff is consistently reticent to revisit the past, which is admirable — the former Cedar Rapids Jefferson star has always chosen to look forward. It’s that focused determination that has helped make him a lock for first-team all-Big Ten this season.
Uthoff has been a supporting Iowa player in four prior meetings — averaging 24.3 minutes, 8.3 points and 3.3 rebounds a game. Wednesday, he’ll be the marked star. As you would expect, Uthoff says he approaches playing the Badgers “just like everybody else.”
“I didn’t play for them. I redshirted. I didn’t step on the court to play for them,” Uthoff said. “So it’s not that hard for me.”
Ryan stepped aside from the Wisconsin helm in December, leaving Greg Gard in charge. Gard remembers Uthoff showing great promise on the Badgers’ scout team.
“I'm sure transferring is not easy. Obviously, there was a lot made of that at the time,” Gard said Monday. “That's water under the bridge now. Like I said, for Jarrod to do what he's done back in his home state and the season they've had, obviously, he's a big part of it. He deserves credit for that.”
Whose legs are tired?
Iowa players said after last week’s loss at Penn State that it welcomed the scheduled seven days between games to recharge. Meanwhile, Wisconsin may now bring some tired legs of its own into Carver-Hawkeye.
“Everybody is probably tired as you get to this point of the season,” McCaffery said. “I don't think we're any more tired than anybody else.”
Gard said he would go easy in practice on his starters with Wisconsin playing two hard-fought games — Thursday’s loss at Michigan State, Sunday’s win over Illinois — since Iowa last competed. Nigel Hayes (37 minutes), Ethan Happ (36), Bronson Koenig (32), Zak Showalter (32) and Vitto Brown (31) led the Badgers’ second-half comeback against the Illini.
The last time Iowa had a Big Ten bye, after a Jan. 5 home win over Nebraska, its next game was a dominant 76-59 road win at then-AP No. 4 Michigan State. The freshness factor might explain why Iowa was listed as an early 9½-point favorite over the Badgers.
Lock-down defense needed
After its 5-0 start in Big Ten play, Iowa’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranked 12th in the country — at 92.3 points per 100 opponent possessions. But that solid defense has steadily slipped, and now the Hawkeyes are 36th in the country (at 95.9); that number is 101.0 in Big Ten-only games.
Iowa’s lack of consistent stops against Penn State inhibited its effort to rally. The same was true in the 85-78 loss at Indiana on Feb. 11.
“When I say we need to get better at defense, it will never be one thing,” McCaffery said. “It will be, OK, ball pressure, weak-side help, rebounding, limit them to one shot, more attention to detail as it relates to the other team's best players, better at defending ball screens, better at defending in transition, better communication so we can be more efficient five as one.
“Our defense hasn't been awful, but it hasn't been as good as it needs to be.”
If Iowa’s defensive effort is inspired early, that could be a good sign.
Conquering another king
Iowa slayed a Big Ten demon in Michigan State, sweeping the Spartans this season after losing nine in a row and 14 of 15 in the series.
It would certainly help the Hawkeyes’ path to conquer another dominant program in the conference — Wisconsin has beaten Iowa five straight times. One of the annoyances in facing the Badgers has been their ability to control ball possession and make shot-clock-beating 3-pointers.
“They stretch the floor really well,” Uthoff said. “They shoot 3s really well.”
This is a Badgers team (17-10, 9-5 Big Ten) that has improved drastically, a young group that’s been finding their own way after first-round NBA draft picks Kaminsky and Sam Dekker led back-to-back Final Four appearances. They’ve gone 8-1 after a 9-9 start, including a road win at Maryland.
Game on. Iowa’s ready to finish strong.
“We expect to win a Big Ten championship, we expect to win a national championship,” Uthoff said. “We’re anxious to go out there and compete for it.”
NO. 8 IOWA (20-6, 11-3) VS. WISCONSIN (17-10, 9-5)
When, where: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
TV: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Shon Morris, Lisa Byington)
Radio: 1040-AM (WHO) in Des Moines, 800-AM (KXIC) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius Channel 83, XM Channel 195
Game notes: This is a Black & Gold spirit game, with fans being asked to wear gold in Sections A, C, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, M, NN, LL, JJ, HH, FF, DD and BB; those in sections B, D, L, N, MM, KK, II, GG, EE, CC and AA should wear black. Standing-room only tickets were available as of Tuesday. ... Iowa has won 16 consecutive games at home, spanning 377 days. The Hawkeyes are 13-0 at home this season, averaging a 16.9-point margin of victory in those games. ... Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff (19.4 ppg) and Peter Jok (18.6 ppg) rank 2-3 in Big Ten-only games this season in conference scoring. ... Wisconsin ranks 31st nationally in fewest fouls per game (16.6). ... The Badgers' Nigel Hayes (16.7 ppg) leads the Big Ten with 213 free-throw attempts.
The Register's Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar talk the latest in Iowa men's basketball — mainly the Hawkeyes' players-only meeting after the Penn State loss, what Wednesday's game against Wisconsin means and the race for the Big Ten title.