INDIANAPOLIS — Luke Recker and Matt Gatens share mutual admiration for one another, and some of it pertains to the Big Ten Tournament.
Gatens, an Iowa senior, attended the 2002 Big Ten Tournament when Recker spectacularly elevated Iowa to the title game. Recker twice provided game-winning heroics in the final 1.4 seconds to beat Indiana and Wisconsin back-to-back.
“When Luke hit those shots, that was an incredible moment for me as a fan being there and seeing that,” said Gatens, who was 12 at the time. “Coming up as a young kid watching that happen — I was already a huge Hawk fan — but really made an impact on myself.”
Recker said Gatens can make that kind of impact on the 2012 tournament and perhaps go one step farther than Recker’s team did that season. The 2002 Hawkeyes lost the Big Ten title game that year, one year after Iowa became the only squad in Big Ten history to win four games in four days.
Recker suffered a season-ending knee injury as a junior in 2001, and the Hawkeyes stumbled to the Big Ten’s sixth seed. Paced by tournament MVP Reggie Evans, who still holds the Big Ten record for most rebounds in a single tournament, Iowa breezed past Northwestern in the opener. The Hawkeyes then dumped No. 6 seed Ohio State in the quarterfinals and pounded No. 7 Penn State in the semifinals before playing Indiana for the title. Evans blocked a potential game-winning 3-point attempt at the buzzer to preserve a 63-61 win.
Four-for-four, a grueling feat not duplicated in the Big Ten Tournament’s 15-year history.
“Physically, it is tough, but at the same time you’ve got to remember they’re 18-to-22 year-old kids,” Recker said. “They are used to playing four or five games a day in AAU; that’s just the reality of it. So that being said, you’re probably a step slow by the time you get to Sunday. It definitely takes a toll on you.
“I think at that point in the year it’s just desire of want. You understand this could be your last game, and there’s something special about the tournaments and tournament time and every game you play. If you win, you move on. That’s a fun atmosphere to be involved in. I really believe that’s what it comes down to.”
Seven Big Ten squads have played four games in four days and six have lost by double digits in the title game. In fact it’s happened three times in the last four tournaments. In 2008, 10-seeded Illinois advanced after a one-point squeaker, an overtime upset and a 14-point victory before losing to top seed Wisconsin. In 2010 and 2011, sixth seeds Minnesota and Penn State also qualified for the title game.
“There’s no doubt the last game really took a toll on us,” said Illinois Coach Bruce Weber, whose ninth-seeded Illini (17-14) will face Iowa (16-15) Thursday in the tournament opener. “We started out OK and just kind of hit a wall.”
Weber said the tournament provides “a fresh start” for a team seeking redemption.
“You’ve got to hope to get some breaks,” Weber said. “I think it’s always tough coming in the Friday game when the other team has a game in, even though they’re a little (more tired). I think that game experience in the tournament always helps them and pushes you through. The Saturday one’s a tough one.”
Weber points to Connecticut’s five-wins-in-five-days performance last year in the Big East Tournament as inspiration. Minnesota Coach Tubby Smith said his team played “on edge” in 2010, which spurred the Gophers to the title game.
“You’ve got to play with a sense of urgency,” Smith said. “Certainly when you look at teams in the lower bracket and then having to play in the opening round, we’re all believing that, ‘Hey, we’ve got new life, there’s a new opportunity.’ And we’re all approaching it with that type of positive attitude.”
“You’ve got to just hope some kids rise up and are special for a weekend,” Weber said. “That’s a big part of the Big Ten Tournament of March Madness because anything can happen.”
It did happen for Iowa in 2001. It almost happened for Iowa in 2002. Can it happen for the Hawkeyes in 2012?
“If anybody can do that, I think it’s this Iowa team, I really believe,” said Recker, whose 91 points in 2002 still stands as the most in a single tournament. “This Iowa team can beat anybody on any given day. They’re really a fun team to watch.
“There’s something about this team, especially with Matt Gatens. With the way he’s playing, Matt Gatens doesn’t want to take off the uniform. When you’ve got a hot player and you’ve got (Devyn) Marble playing well, I just think they’re a team that can shock some people.”
If anybody knows about pulling off a Big Ten shocker, it’s Recker.