By Friday night, the Iowa men’s basketball team will have played four of its last six games in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The Hawkeyes hope they’re as comfortable and competitive in the Garden Thursday and Friday as they were Feb. 28-March 1 in the Big Ten tournament. Despite limping to Gotham with a 13-18 record, they beat Illinois and pushed eventual national finalist Michigan to overtime before falling.
Thursday at approximately 8:15 p.m., Iowa (2-0) will face No. 16 Oregon (2-0) in the semifinals of the Y2K Empire Classic. It will play either Connecticut or Syracuse Friday. The Hawkeyes are fired up.
“Last year,” Iowa forward Tyler Cook said, “the wow factor was there the whole time. I never really got used to it till afterward, the fact I was playing in such a historical environment.
“I’m excited. I can’t wait.”
“I wish you could feel how excited I am to go back there,” said Hawkeye guard Jordan Bohannon, who had 36 points and 12 assists over Iowa’s two games in the Garden last season.
“That was one of the most special places I’ve ever been in my life. Warming up there, showing up and stepping on the floor for the first time, that was just surreal for me and for everyone on the team. Madison Square Garden, it doesn’t get much better than that for basketball.”
A win or two in this event would mean something, and not because of the venue. Oregon has been a premier program the last several years under Dana Altman, with eight straight seasons of at least 20 wins. Syracuse also is in the top 20 and has a long, storied basketball history. UConn has won four national championships in the last 20 years.
“That’s why we’re going,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Wednesday. “We want to play in the Garden, we want to play there, we want to play those quality teams.
“You’re on the big stage, and we’re looking forward to it.”
First, Oregon. The Ducks have a lot of talent. Their marquee player is 7-foot-2 freshman Bol Bol, starting what could be a one-and-done college career with 35 points and 24 rebounds over two games. McCaffery said more than one player will be assigned to guard Bol, since he is athletic and can play inside and away from the basket.
“He can play in an up-tempo game, he can play in a half-court game,” said McCaffery.
Iowa didn’t set the world on fire in its first two games, but did pull away from UMKC and Green Bay down the stretch. The Hawkeyes had 33 turnovers over those two contests, and made just 12 of 43 3-pointers for 27.9 percent.
On the positive side, the Hawkeyes have been good at getting the ball to the low post and getting a little something for the effort. Iowa has drawn 57 fouls while committing just 30.
That was at home. Now the Hawkeyes are at a neutral site with tougher competition.
“We’ll get to find out where we are,” said Iowa senior Nicholas Baer. “It’s really a good benchmark.”
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