CEDAR FALLS — It’s not you, it’s me.
That’s the message the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball program received last summer from the University of Iowa. Expanded Big Ten Conference scheduling commitments were cited as a reason for ending their relationship.
After going steady with annual meetings alternating between each other’s home gymnasiums over consecutive 24 seasons, the schools got together on neutral ground every two years since 2012 as part of a double-date with Iowa State and Drake that showcased the state’s four NCAA Division I teams. Those meetings will conclude Saturday when the Hy-Vee Classic’s contract comes to an abrupt end.
Iowa State and Drake are set to play at 3:30 p.m. followed by the last opportunity for UNI (4-5) and No. 22 Iowa (7-2) to exchange belongings at 6 p.m. inside Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena.
“I don’t know what those circumstances would be,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson responded Monday, when asked if he could foresee a series between his program and Iowa or Iowa State being renewed. “At this point there haven’t been any discussions.
“From my standpoint, I’ve said it the whole time, my preference is that the series continues. Beyond that, we have limited to no control over where it stands right now and what it looks like going forward. I quit worrying about it and quit thinking about it shortly after the decision was made to make the change.”
Iowa, it appears, has already moved on.
In addition to a 20-game conference schedule and commitments to participate in single-game challenges with the ACC and Big East, the Hawkeyes have agreed to meet up with Cincinnati next season as part of a four-team doubleheader inside Chicago’s United Center.
For players within a UNI team who may have been passed over by Iowa or Iowa State during the recruiting process, Saturday’s game marks one final chance to show a neighboring Power Five school what they’re missing.
“This could be my only chance to play them,” said UNI freshman AJ Green, a top 100 national recruit who chose to play for his dad in his hometown over offers from multiple Power Five programs. “I’m going to do everything I can to help this team, and hopefully get out of there with a win on Saturday.
“A lot of guys don’t always get the opportunity to play at Iowa or Iowa State so we’ve got a chip on our shoulder and we want those games. For this to be the last year of that, it’s kind of a bummer.”
Perhaps fittingly, UNI’s toughest test of the season will come against Iowa at the end of finals week. The Panthers’ four-guard lineup will be challenged by an Iowa team that torched Iowa State’s four-guard defense to the tune of a 98-84 victory Thursday in Iowa City.
Physical 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Cook leads the Hawkeyes with an average of 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while 6-11 Luka Garza is averaging 12 points and lengthy 6-6 freshman guard Joe Wieskamp 10.1 a contest.
Jacobson anticipates his team will have to do a number of things to prevent Iowa from controlling the paint. He mentioned minutes for 7-foot center Justin Dahl, who has played sparingly this season, as potentially an important part of the equation.
“They’ve got an advantage with those guys and to think we can go in and play them just single coverage all night long down in the block, that’s not going to be a good recipe for success,” Jacobson said.
In addition to Iowa’s interior presence, starters Wieskamp, Isaiah Moss and Jordan Bohannon are averaging nearly 1.5 3-pointers per game with Nicholas Baer an accurate 40 percent shooter from distance off the bench.
“They’re great in transition,” Jacobson said. “Even going back to when (Iowa coach) Fran (McCaffery) was at Siena, that was where we started our defensive game plan.
“They’ve got guys that can shoot it from the 3-point line in transition. They do as good of a job as anybody of getting the basketball inside when they’re coming in transition. They’ve got multiple guys that can run to the front of the rim and they find those guys.”
Offensively, UNI continues to try to find ways to enhance its production.
Jacobson is satisfied with the quality of looks from the perimeter his shooters have been able to generate and has faith that more shots will hit their target. Finding more frequent paint touches has also become a priority.
“We’ve got to make some adjustments,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got to keep adding to what we’re doing.”