Iowa has never played a Big Ten men’s basketball game in November.
If you’re going to do it, it might as well be meaningful, right? So it is Friday night when Wisconsin and Iowa meet for the 165th occasion, but the first one in a November.
The tales of these two teams have a distinct similarity. Both fell on hard times last season. Wisconsin, which had been to the NCAA tournament for 19 straight years, crashed with a 15-18 overall record. Iowa didn’t have an NCAA streak, but had posted six consecutive winning records under Fran McCaffery before plummeting to 14-19 last season.
Today, both are in the Top 25. Wisconsin (6-1) is No. 22. Iowa (6-0) is No. 15. Both had true home-court challenges Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Badgers trailed by seven points at halftime to North Carolina State, the Hawkeyes were behind by six at the half to Pittsburgh. Wisconsin won, 79-75. Iowa prevailed, 69-68.
Now they clash on Nov. 30 in the first game of their first 20-game conference seasons. In terms of importance, starting 1-0 in league play would dwarf the good work the two teams have done leading up to this game. And if you’re the Hawkeyes, you obviously don’t want to begin the Big Ten season with a home loss followed by a game at No. 8 Michigan State Monday.
In getting back to similarities between the Badgers and Hawkeyes, you can look at the leading scorers of both. Wisconsin 6-foot-10 senior Ethan Happ and Iowa 6-9 junior Tyler Cook were both NBA early-entry candidates last spring. Both didn’t decide to return to their schools until the final hours before the deadline to withdraw from draft-consideration.
Happ has been the Big Ten’s Player of the Week for each of the first three weeks of this season. He leads the nation in double-doubles with seven, which happens to be the number of games the Badgers have played. His averages 18.0 points and 12.3 rebounds, as well as 5.3 assists and 2.0 blocked shots.
He was the only player in college basketball to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals last season.
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“He’s a great player,” Cook said. “Wisconsin’s a great team.”
“He’s one of the best ball-handling bigs that you’ll see,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “Playing with great confidence right now.
“He’s a senior. He’s an All-American. Tremendous versatility going right and left. You’ve seen him bringing in a lot more off the rebound, put it on the deck. Take it coast to coast. But he pretty much can score from pretty much anywhere.”
This is Iowa’s first Game of the Season.
Playing a Big Ten foe, said Hawkeye senior forward Nicholas Baer, “there’s a sense of greater competition. Obviously the players are better.
“I think more so, too, is a greater sense of pride.”
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