Iowa Men's Basketball

Pitt-Iowa a far better ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup than once believed

Two unbeatens square off in Carver Tuesday night

Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp (10) pulls down a rebound next to Alabama State’s Therrell Gosier II (1) during the Hawkeyes’ 105-78 men’s basketball win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa guard Joe Wieskamp (10) pulls down a rebound next to Alabama State’s Therrell Gosier II (1) during the Hawkeyes’ 105-78 men’s basketball win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The scheduling of Tuesday night’s Pittsburgh-Iowa men’s basketball game was no accident.

The Panthers and Hawkeyes are meeting in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Tuesday at 8 p.m., on ESPNU, and will be directly opposite the Challenge’s marquee Indiana-Duke game on ESPN for about 90 minutes.

Pitt-Iowa was perceived as a throwaway game when it was scheduled, one to fill out the Challenge. You thought the Hawkeyes had a drop last season when they went 4-14 in the Big Ten? Pitt went 0-18 in the ACC. It lost eight conference games by at least 23 points.

But basketball is a game of bounces, and both programs have bounced upward so far this young season. The Hawkeyes, in fact, bounced from 22nd to 15th Monday in the latest USA TODAY coaches’ poll.

Iowa (5-0) and Pitt (6-0) are two of the 27 Division I teams that were unbeaten through Sunday. Both have enjoyed nice wins in New York. The Hawkeyes knocked off ranked Oregon in Manhattan. The Panthers beat Atlantic-10 favorite Saint Louis in Brooklyn.

Pitt has played a soft schedule other than the Saint Louis game, but that doesn’t gloss over the fact Jeff Capel took over a train wreck last spring after Kevin Stallings was fired and quickly got things on track.

A pile of Panthers transferred out. But Capel, an assistant coach at his Duke alma mater from 2011 to 2018 after being head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and Oklahoma, was able to lure freshmen to his program extremely late in the recruiting season.

Guards Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson committed to Pitt in late April. McGowens was a 4-star recruit who reclassified from 2019 to 2018. He is averaging 9.3 points. Johnson was a 3-star who originally committed to Nebraska.

“Everything in life is a reflection of the choices we make,” Johnson said in a video announcing his commitment. “Throughout this process, I had to make some very tough decisions. I have come to realize that my destiny isn’t a matter of chance, but a matter of choice. Today, I make the choice to define that narrative. Today, I make the choice to embrace whatever challenges my future holds.”

Johnson apparently can play as well as he communicates. He is averaging 16.7 points and 5.5 assists, and has scored in double-figures in every game.

“I really like their team,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Monday. “They play together, they play hard. They defend. They’re organized. They run good stuff. They’ve got a good blend of some really good young players, veteran returnees, a couple of transfers. They’ve all blended pretty well together. That’s why they’re 6-0.

Iowa wants to get to 6-0. The Hawkeyes probably shouldn’t look ahead, but we can. After Pitt, No. 22 Wisconsin comes to Carver Friday in the Big Ten opener for both. The Hawkeyes then play at No. 8 Michigan State next Monday, and come back home to face Iowa State three nights later.

That made the six-day span between Iowa’s most recent game and Pittsburgh useful.

“We’ve got a really intense stretch coming up,” McCaffery said. “The focus is always just on the next game in terms of scouting. But it did give us a little bit of time to work on some things we want to do. You also give them the opportunity to have a little rest because of the stretch coming up. It’s going to be a pretty intense couple of weeks.”

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

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