Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa men's basketball: Third-straight Top 25 team visits Carver, and it's Rutgers!?

Lots of tickets left for unexpected meeting of ranked teams

Iowa's Joe Wieskamp (center) is fouled by Rutgers' Shaq Carter (13) as Carter and forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) defend dur
Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp (center) is fouled by Rutgers’ Shaq Carter (13) as Carter and forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) defend during the Scarlet Knights’ 86-72 win over the Hawkeyes last March 2 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — As of Tuesday afternoon, about 5,000 tickets were unsold for Wednesday night’s Rutgers-Iowa men’s basketball game despite the Hawkeyes being ranked 19th and on a three-game win streak.

One easy explanation: It’s an 8 p.m. January midweek event. That’s not catnip to college basketball cats.

Another: The opponent is Rutgers, a team that wouldn’t have had Iowa fans planning ahead to get tickets because it’s traditionally a powerful program.

But things seemingly change quickly in life even if they’ve been gradually pointing that way. Winter becomes spring. Toddlers become schoolkids. Democracies become tyrannies, or hopefully, vice versa.

Rutgers is good, suddenly it appears. Rutgers is 5-2 in the Big Ten-good. Rutgers (14-4) is Top 25-good, having reached the national rankings Monday for the first time since 1979.

That’s four decades of winters that turned into springs. That’s toddlers reaching the cusp of middle age.

“I think everybody in this league could see this coming from Rutgers the last couple years,” Iowa center Luka Garza said Tuesday. “You saw they had the potential. This year they’ve really put it together and done a good job.”

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You could see it last March 2 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the Hawkeyes’ 2018-19 home finale. In their fifth Big Ten season, the Scarlet Knights came to Iowa with a 6-11 conference mark. Not great, right? No, but it doubled the number of league wins they had in any of their first four Big Ten years.

Then, the Knights whipped Iowa, 86-72.

“I think everybody really has a salty taste in their mouth from last year, Nicholas' (Baer) senior day,” said Garza. “I think we all have that in our minds to make sure that doesn’t repeat.”

The thing is, this season’s Knights are saltier. They are first in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in scoring defense, allowing 58.7 points per game. They are first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally in field goal defense, allowing 36.4 percent.

“It’s a lot of things when you look at those kind of numbers,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “They play really hard. They’re physical. They have depth. Not a lot of drop-off when they go to the bench at all. They have size.

“They’re contesting you at the rim as well as putting pressure on the ball.”

Yes, we’re talking about Rutgers, 16-76 in Big Ten games entering this season, minus a winning overall record since 2005-06 or a winning conference mark since 1990-91.

Things seemingly change quickly. The same could be said for the 13-5 Hawkeyes. They were 1-3 in the Big Ten after losing at Nebraska Jan. 7. They had injury and depth issues. They had home games against nationally-ranked teams Maryland and Michigan coming up in the next 10 days.

Yet, Iowa is 4-3 in the conference today, and vaulted Monday from unranked all the way to that No. 19 spot in Associated Press’ poll.

“After we’ve struggled at times they didn’t blame anybody, each other, the coaches,” McCaffery said. “It was just back to work and we’ll get it figured out.”

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Oh, Iowa leads the Big Ten in scoring offense at 79.9 points a game. Rutgers hasn’t allowed more than 62 in its last eight games.

Something must give, whether there are a few thousand empty seats or not.

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

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