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Hawkeyes claim excitement over program's first Christmas Day basketball game in 32 years

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MINNEAPOLIS — Friday will mark the first time the Iowa men’s basketball team has played a game on Christmas Day since 1988.

Iowa was competing in a tournament in Hawaii for that one, ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll at the time, and anticipating a great run through a stacked Big Ten Conference. California-Riverside put a 110-92 whipping on the Tom Davis-coached Hawkeyes, the first of 10 in a season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Thirty-two years later, Fran McCaffery brings a team ranked fourth in the AP poll to an empty Barn in Minnesota, two days after a blizzard ripped through the state and with no fans allowed. Not even family members of the players, because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s the second of 20 scheduled Big Ten games for Iowa, which was the preseason pick to win a league that hasn’t been this daunting since perhaps that winter of 1989.

The Hawkeyes (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten Conference), fresh off a Tuesday home victory against Purdue, are not grumbling about having to spend their holiday on the road. But it is a sign of how different this season will be as it plays out against the background of a global pandemic.

More:No. 5 Iowa 70, Purdue 55: Here's what we learned

“I love to play the game of basketball. It doesn’t matter what day of the year it is. This year, it’s a lot different with not being able to travel home and seeing families,” Iowa center Luka Garza said of the Big Ten’s decision to play three games on Christmas Day. “So I’d rather play than anything else.”

Iowa junior Joe Wieskamp was encouraged to see his team display a defensive intensity throughout Tuesday's 70-55 victory against Purdue. He was a big part of that. The Hawkeyes return to action quickly, with a Christmas Day matchup at Minnesota that shows how strange the scheduling has been this year for Big Ten Conference basketball.

McCaffery said his players “were all in from the beginning” when the idea of Christmas games was raised in June. The thinking then was that teams were going to need to be isolating themselves anyway to limit potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. So if it was not advised to hold gatherings with their actual families, why not spend the holiday with their basketball family?

The Hawkeyes planned to gather for a Christmas Eve meal, McCaffery said.

The NBA has made a tradition of offering a slate of Christmas games, trying to replicate the association the NFL has built around Thanksgiving contests. The Big Ten thought it could tap into that basketball audience at a time when it was uncertain whether the pros would be in action. The TV networks were excited about that prospect, as well.

No other college conference followed the Big Ten’s lead. So it will be a doubleheader on FS1 featuring Wisconsin at Michigan State at 11:30 a.m. and Maryland at Purdue at 1:30 p.m. The Big Ten Network has a twin billing of Michigan at Nebraska at 5 p.m., followed by the Hawkeyes at Minnesota (7-1, 0-1).

Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said this week that his players also raised their hands as willing to play on Christmas. But he noted that it was much easier on the teams that are hosting games than those that must travel, such as Iowa. The fact that Minnesota is one of the six Big Ten schools not allowing players’ relatives into Williams Arena exacerbates that.

And now there’s even the question of how big the TV audience will be. The NBA decided to start its season Dec. 22, just in time to hold on to its traditional Christmas lineup. The Hawkeyes-Gophers game will be competing with a Mavericks-Lakers matchup that features a little more star power.

Still, McCaffery senses that his team views Friday’s game as a special opportunity in a unique year. Certainly, basketball fans in Iowa will have an easy choice when it comes to which game to watch.

“I think everybody was excited to play games in that window,” McCaffery said. “We all made a decision that we would stay together and stay healthy and limit what we do, where we go, until this season is over.”

For Iowa, this game is another chance to show how quickly a veteran team can absorb a new scouting report and put it into action. Tuesday’s 70-55 victory over Purdue came three days after a disappointing loss against No. 1 Gonzaga. The Hawkeyes watched the film of that game, saw missed defensive assignments and poor rebounding, and shored up both areas to throttle the Boilermakers.

“We had some guys that had some serious defensive breakdowns that shouldn't have had them, and we point it out to them,” McCaffery said. “We don't belittle them. We don't scream and yell. But we show it to them so they can see it and then we drill it and then we put the gameplan in.

“The really good players and mature guys and intelligent guys understand that and they benefit from that approach.”

Hawkeye junior forward Joe Wieskamp was one of those players. He was not happy with what he saw when reviewing the Gonzaga loss, even though he scored 20 points. He needed to do more to prevent the Bulldogs from getting the 99 that they ended up with.

Earlier:Joe Wieskamp ready to seize his moment as Iowa Hawkeyes' leading man

Against Purdue, Wieskamp had 17 points and nine rebounds while contributing two steals and a blocked shot. He was proud that the Hawkeyes maintained a defensive intensity throughout that game.

Wieskamp said he’s eager to get right back on the court, with only two days to prepare again, even if it means being away from his Muscatine home on Christmas.

“We came here to play basketball,” he said, “and that’s what we get to do.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.