Normally, I say college basketball season doesn’t really start until January.
I’m willing to make an exception this year. In fact, I insist. No matter how gooey the nonconference cupcakes may be.
Bells of basketball optimism are ringing in Iowa. Hope for a season of success and entertainment can be found at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. It’s a great game when it’s played well, and it may be played well a lot of nights at our state schools.
There hasn’t been a season in which two Iowa teams reached the NCAA Division I men’s tourney since 2006, when UNI and Iowa made it. That was the Hawkeyes’ last visit. Iowa State ended a six-season NCAA drought last year, and that will be Iowa’s goal this winter.
UNI, meanwhile, has missed the last two NCAAs after going four times in a six-year period. But the Panthers have four consecutive seasons of 20-plus wins, so they haven’t exactly gone underground since their Sweet 16 run of 2010.
The combined announced attendance for Friday night’s season-openers at Iowa (an 86-55 win over Texas-Pan American) and Iowa State (an 82-59 victory over Southern University) was 28,834. One more time: Friday-night games, no-name opponents, and still, big crowds. Nothing indicates large and larger gatherings won’t be the norm this season.
There is a level of skittishness that Iowa fans will gradually get past. In a Hlog post last week, I detailed how Texas-Pan American wasn’t a team to be feared. Several people reminded me Campbell cleaned Iowa’s clock last November. But that was last year.
In Game 1, Fran McCaffery sicced his 10-man rotation on the Broncs, and the Hawkeyes crushed their overmatched foes. Look for that to be common as Iowa plays a series of overmatched opponents in Carver-Hawkeye Arena before Big Ten play starts. Included is the Central Michigan club that comes in on Monday night.
For the first time since that 2006 NCAA team, Iowa has a rotation-full of capable players. You saw right away that freshmen Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury change the look and strength of the Hawkeyes.
Whether the Hawkeyes will be able to do what it takes in the Big Ten season to chase down an NCAA berth is something we can’t say now with any confidence. But we do know that for the first time since Steve Alford rode off to New Mexico, this year’s team seems to have a real chance.
Iowa State, meanwhile, has a tough act to follow. It went 12-6 in the Big 12, 23-11 overall, and advanced to the second round of the NCAAs last season. That was really good stuff.
Royce White is gone. This state hadn’t seen a big player with such skills since Lewis Lloyd was at Drake three decades earlier.
But Hoiberg has players. Swingman Will Clyburn, a Utah transfer, got off to a good start at ISU with his 16-point, 10-rebound game against Southern. Much is expected of him and Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious, who shot badly and had seven turnovers Friday. But Lucious is a player with a lot of postseason experience who should be an asset.
Freshman forward Georges Niang, 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, may be the most-interesting story on the Cyclones. He debuted with 15 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes. He is 2-for-2 in 3-point shooting.
UNI has its deepest team since it went 10-deep in the Missouri Valley Conference and NCAA tourneys three years ago. The Panthers were picked third in the MVC preseason behind heavy favorite Creighton and Illinois State.
Panther forward Seth Tuttle was the league’s Freshman of the Year last season, and UNI guard Deon Mitchell was on the league’s All-Freshman team. Then there are three seniors — Jake Koch, Anthony James and Marc Sonnen — who were in Ben Jacobsen’s rotation three years ago and have played a ton since.
Optimism. Fun. Basketball. Bring it on.
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