Iowa Men's Basketball

How Iowa basketball starts 2020: Facing a Penn State team ranked higher

Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions are 2 teams with impressive bodies of work so far

Iowa's Luka Garza shoots over Penn State's Lamar Stevens in the Hawkeyes' 89-82 win at Bryce Jordan Center in State Coll
Iowa’s Luka Garza shoots over Penn State’s Lamar Stevens in the Hawkeyes’ 89-82 win at Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., last Jan. 16. (John Beale/Associated Press)

PHILADELPHIA — Beyond the hoops-de-doo of playing in the historic Palestra is the fact that Saturday’s Iowa-Penn State men’s basketball game is a matchup of Top 25 teams.

The only previous time that happened when the two met was in 1996. The fault isn’t Iowa’s. The Hawkeyes have spent 356 weeks in Associated Press’ rankings over the years. Penn State? Just 18, counting the last three weeks.

This season’s Nittany Lions (11-2) have served notice they are good. They have wins over Georgetown, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Alabama, and then-No. 4 Maryland.

So facing this 21st-ranked team with six Philadelphia-area players including Stevens and Watkins, and doing it in the fabled Palestra, is quite a challenge for the No. 23 Hawkeyes at 1 p.m. (CT).

“I have a lot of family and friends there, grew up with that place being a big part of my life,” said Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, a Philadelphia native who played college ball at Penn, which has called the Palestra home since 1927.

“I’m pretty good at kind of separating that from the task at hand,” McCaffery said. “It’s a big game on our schedule. It’s a ranked opponent, a team I have a lot of respect for. They’re playing extremely well. My responsibility is just to make sure we go there and play well.”

Iowa has shown it can compete away from Iowa City, having won at Syracuse and Iowa State, and beaten Texas Tech and Cincinnati at neutral sites. Now, however, comes 18 straight conference contests with no gap longer than five days between them from now through the March 8 finale at Illinois.

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What has happened so far has been good for the 10-3 Hawkeyes. What happens from Saturday through that day at Champaign will determine if and how they fit into the NCAA Tournament.

That march to March restarts Saturday in Philly. As of Thursday, Iowa was 18th in the Kenpom.com rankings, Penn State 23rd. Penn State was 15th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, Iowa 23rd.

The Nittany Lions have a pair of front-line gems in seniors Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. Both rebound. Stevens can score in the paint and hit midrange jumpers, and is a good passer. Watkins blocks 3.5 shots per game.

Watkins, Iowa center Luka Garza said, “is a terrific player, very athletic. You can’t let him get the ball deep in the post or he’s going to score.”

As will Garza, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 21.6 points per game.

Sophomore Lions guard Myreon Jones has made 42 percent of his 3-pointers, and he shoots a lot of them.

The Lions have more athletic ability and depth than they’ve had in Pat Chambers’ previous eight seasons as Penn State’s coach, none of which ended in the NCAA tourney.

In fact, it’s Penn State’s best team in ...

“A long time,” said Iowa guard Connor McCaffery. “A very long time.”

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

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