Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa Hawkeyes hope to make lots of Christmas baskets in Minnesota

Iowa-Minnesota 1 of 4 Big Ten Christmas men's basketball games

Iowa's Joe Wieskamp (10) handles the ball against Minnesota's Gabe Kalscheur during the Hawkeyes' 58-55 win over the Gop
Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp (10) handles the ball against Minnesota’s Gabe Kalscheur during the Hawkeyes’ 58-55 win over the Gophers last Feb. 16 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The two players and their teams meet again there on Friday night. (Stacy Bengs/Associated Press)

Christmas is for children, peace on earth, and the NBA.

That league has had Christmas games every year since 1947, except 1998 when there was a lockout. Wilt Chamberlain had 59 points and 36 rebounds in a 1961 Christmas Day game his team lost. Bernard King scored 60 on Christmas 1984. His team lost, too.

Kobe Bryant played in 16 Christmas games for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The league has had a nationally televised quintuple-header of games each Christmas for over a decade. They get good ratings.

Enter the Big Ten Conference in 2020. There will be four Big Ten men’s basketball games Friday. Wisconsin is at Michigan State at 11:30 a.m., Maryland is at Purdue at 1:30 p.m., Michigan visits Nebraska at 5 p.m., and Iowa is at Minnesota at 7.

Iowa men’s basketball teams have played on Christmas just twice, in Hawaii tournaments in the 1980s.

“For a while it looked like the NBA wasn’t going to play (this soon) and we were going to take those — that window of opportunity to showcase college basketball,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “The NBA decided to come back, which is great. That’s a tradition, NBA games on television.

"But the other networks (Fox, FS1 and BTN) were anxious for our games as well, so there was no decrease in interest in our games after the NBA decided to come back.”

There was another reason for the conference pursuing Christmas games. Everything always come back to COVID-19 this year, you know.

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“When the discussion first began about playing on Christmas there were a lot of factors,” McCaffery said, “not the least of which is we’re trying to stay in a pseudo-bubble.

“As hard as that is in particular at Christmastime when everybody wants to see their families, (we’re) trying to limit as much as we can where we go, who we see. If we’re going to be here over the break, then we need to play games.”

Teams have pretty much agreed to stay together on campus over the holiday, which isn’t the norm.

“Obviously it’s a little bit different not being home for Christmas, something we’re used to,” Iowa player Joe Wieskamp said. “But at the end of the day we came here to play basketball and that’s what we get to do it. I’m excited for it.”

That sounds like the majority opinion of the players from those eight teams. They grew up watching the NBA on Christmas.

“I love it,” said Iowa’s Luka Garza. “I love playing the game of basketball, it doesn’t matter what day of the year it is. To play on Christmas is definitely awesome.

“This year it’s a lot different with not being able to travel home and seeing families. I’d rather play than anything else, so I’m excited to play.”

Purdue Coach Matt Painter said the players’ opinions were sought before the Big Ten went ahead with the scheduling.

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“We just came to a real consensus,” Painter said. “Our guys going home was not a great idea, for guys to leave and have to come back and start over from a testing standpoint.

“If they’re going to be on campus and then we’re just not going to play, now that’s going to be tough. Why can’t we set this up to where we have the opportunity to play?

“We’ve all watched Christmas Day games, NBA games. Just that exposure, we thought that was pretty cool. When we reached out to our guys, our players were all for it.”

One would assume this would be a one-off. Big Ten basketball will again take a holiday on Christmas after COVID-19 is under control, right?

“I think every coach in America wants their kids to have the opportunity to be home for Christmas and be with their families,” McCaffery said. “I think every coach wants to be with his family. We won’t be.

“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.”

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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