ROSEMONT, Ill. — Iowa's men's basketball team plays only a handful of competitive opponents in non-conference play this fall. But the Hawkeyes face perhaps their toughest test with nobody watching on Sunday.
Iowa will host Creighton in a closed scrimmage Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The session doesn't count with media and spectators prohibited from attending. But it's a chance for Iowa to test itself against a national-level opponent in the Bluejays, who rank 16th by the Associated Press.
"I didn’t know that we would be fortunate enough to get somebody of that caliber," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.
Creighton finished 29-6 last year and won a NCAA tournament game in March before North Carolina ended the Bluejays' season.
Creighton also pounded Iowa 82-59 in Des Moines last November.
"This year I wanted to play somebody who most people would think would beat us," McCaffery said. "You can’t always get that team."
Creighton presents Iowa with challenges, especially in the post. Junior forward Doug McDermott was a first-team All-American last year, averaging 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. He hit 60.5 percent of his shots and was the only player nationally to score more than 19 points a game and shoot better than 53 percent from the field. He finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference in 3-point percentage at 48.6.
Senior center Gregory Echenique boasts a massive frame at 6-9 and 260 pounds. He scored 9.3 points and led the Missouri Valley Conference in blocks as the league's top defender last year.
He's a completely different player from his freshman year in 2008-09, McCaffery said.
"I coached against Echenique when he was at Rutgers," McCaffery said. "He was overweight and lazy. We beat them when I was at Siena and our center had 20 and 13 in the first half. When he went to another place, he made sure he listened to his coaches. He got in shape and instead of listening to everybody tell him he’s going to get paid, he decided he was going to go get paid. He’s going to be a pro.
"I give the kid a lot of credit. I was really impressed with him last year, and they say he’s even better now. He became an athlete. You used to have to wait three weeks for him come down the floor. He was still good. You could throw it to him and he could score. But he wasn’t involved. Now he’s involved, showing up ball screens, coming over, he’s blocking shots."
Echenique will provide Iowa freshman center Adam Woodbury with good baseline entering this season. Echenique is a physical marvel and the 7-foot-1 Woodbury (and 6-10 sophomore Gabe Olaseni) will face others like him in Big Ten play.
Creighton's veteran roster puts pressure on defenses. Senior guard and Linn-Mar product Grant Gibbs moves the ball with precision, and the Bluejays are among the nation's best at 3-point shooting. With Iowa struggling to defend last year, the scrimmage gives the Hawkeyes a strong test before opening the season on Nov. 9.
"McDermott obviously is one of the best players in the country," McCaffery said. "But they have good shooters, they have guard play. Gibbs is a great post feeder. He facilitates so well. That’s why they’re good. They’ve got all the pieces. Everybody knows their role and everybody does it with a willingness to accept what that is."
Iowa also can play everyone in the scrimmage, including red-shirt candidates. Barring injury, it's likely McCaffery will red-shirt 6-10 forward Kyle Meyer. Red-shirt candidates cannot play in public exhibitions or games.
McCaffery said he likes closed scrimmages because it gives an honest assessment of the team before playing publicly.
"When I was at Siena, we got Temple to scrimmage," McCaffery said. "It was terrific for us. Both of us. We went at it. They were an NCAA team, we were an NCAA team.
"Creighton, we just called them out of the blue. They were looking for one, we were looking for one. So they’re coming here, then we’ll skip a year because they’re playing someone else, and we’ll go over there."