IOWA CITY — The Gavitt Games, pitting Big East against Big Ten, already have given the college basketball world something to which they sat up and paid attention.
Monday saw defending national champion and No. 3 Villanova outlast No. 15 Purdue at Mackey Arena, 79-76. Tuesday had No. 24 Maryland holding off Georgetown, 76-75, and No. 20 Creighton putting it to No. 11 Wisconsin, 79-67.
Thursday offers Iowa its chance to get in on the fun, hosting defending Big East Tournament champs Seton Hall at Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 8 p.m. Coach Fran McCaffery said these early games — toss in No. 5 Indiana beating No. 8 Kansas, then Kansas beating No. 1 Duke, as well — have November feeling a lot like March.
Thus, it’s the perfect chance for a young Hawkeyes squad to be put to the test. The Pirates have been there, done that in a place this Iowa team — and its many young players who haven’t — wants to go.
“It’s a great opportunity because this is a team that’s going to be in the NCAA tournament. We’re playing an NCAA tournament team. I think they know that. They expect that. And we would like to be there as well,” McCaffery said. “As it relates to trying to get your own team ready, like last year, for example, was also good. We had to go on the road and beat a really good Marquette team in the Bradley Center. It was a great opportunity for us early on, and it was an opportunity for them to grow. They were young, and this year we’re a little bit on the younger side.”
Seton Hall returns four starters from a team that went 25-9, and beat No. 5 Xavier and No. 3 Villanova on the way to that Big East Tournament championship before losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, they lost an NBA player in Brooklyn Nets guard Isaiah Whitehead, but Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado didn’t go anywhere. They were the second (Carrington, 14.1 ppg), third (Rodriguez, 12.4) and fourth (Delgado, 9.9) leading scorers last season, and have picked up right where they left off.
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Carrington figures to go head-to-head with Peter Jok as the go-to scorers for both teams, while Tyler Cook and the group of young Iowa big men get to take turns dealing with Delgado.
Jok’s ability to handle himself with Carrington isn’t a worry for Iowa because of his track record to this point. It’s how guys like Cook, Ahmad Wagner and Cordell Pemsl do against Delgado’s toughness and tremendous skill in the post. While the Hawkeyes respected their opening opponents in Kennesaw State and Savannah State, they also freely acknowledged Thursday night will be a tremendous step up in competition level, and against a physical team to boot.
Iowa’s frontcourt might be young across the board, but they aren’t scared.
“Hopefully we’re able to match their intensity and toughness. Coach has been stressing, they’re junkyard dogs; they’re going to come out and try to punk us. We have to try to hit them first,” Cook said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I’m a competitor. I like the best competition possible. I think it’s going to fun. It’ll be a fun game to watch, a fun game to play. I can’t wait.”
The various ways in which Seton Hall can find success against opponents had McCaffery running down a grocery list, seemingly, during his media availability on Wednesday. He listed size, speed, experience, those multiple scorers, depth and versatility in defensive sets.
As much as those, though, McCaffery cited their “innate ability to compete.” It’s what makes a game like this so early on the schedule a valuable teaching tool for his team. It adds another layer to a non-conference schedule that McCaffery already saw as full of tests.
The players want it, too. They want to know what they’re made of right now. They want to know if there’s still a lot of work to be done, or if they’ll be able to see the potential of what this year could be.
Last year it was an early test in Marquette. This year it’s Seton Hall. The Hawkeyes feel like they’ve studied.
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“This is going to be the true test for us,” Jok said. “It’s going to bring the best out of everybody, so we’re looking forward to it. I love it. It’s going to show us what kind of team we are and what kind of team we’re going to be the rest of the season. It’s not going to define us, but where we’re at now and how to go from there.”
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