IOWA CITY — You could say Friday night was a trip back in time for the Iowa basketball program, back to days of yore when Carver-Hawkeye Arena was regularly filled with both fans and talented, exciting Hawkeye players.
But it was more a snapshot of the future, of a program that looks like it will gradually and surely turn promise into production while giving fans reasons to pack this gym.
This 80-71 Iowa win over Iowa State was all about the Hawkeyes. The Cyclones, a talented group that may prove to be Iowa’s equal in overall success by March, came unraveled early and often Friday. They were the extras in this show, a role-reversal from the previous three ISU-Iowa meetings.
The Hawkeyes didn’t have enough players in the first two of those three straight losses to ISU. They had more last year. This year, it’s as if their roster is suddenly overflowing with goodness and potential.
Potential is nothing until it achieves, of course. But up and down the Iowa lineup, players who aren’t seniors played like they were ready for prime-time, winning against a considerable foe in a hopped-up atmosphere.
Oh, the craving that has existed here for such a team. Even one that is bound to have valleys to go with its peaks this season as its freshmen taste some of the sour things a Big Ten season can offer until they ripen enough to dish out more than they take.
You’ve heard about Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell for a lot longer than they’ve been Hawkeyes. But Devyn Marble and Aaron White have received even more immediate help from the rookie class, from a second point guard who didn’t have college coaches wearing down his cellphone battery.
Anthony Clemmons is doing what? Fourteen points, eight assists, and just one turnover against Iowa State? Against senior ISU guard Korie Lucious, a big man on Michigan State’s campus at the same time Clemmons was just one of several good players for the J.W. Sexton High Big Reds?
Sexton is in Lansing, and won state-titles in 2011 and 2012. That’s right, a really good basketball player from Lansing was unrecruited by Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo and has quickly emerged as a confident, capable and smart addition to Iowa’s program 10 games into his college career. Wait, what?
“It wasn’t that hard,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said after this win. “He wasn’t very heavily recruited.
“He was on a team that had multiple stars. So I think what you needed to do and what we were able to do is watch his team play enough to assess how complete his game was.”
One of those stars was Denzel Valentine, a blue-chipper Izzo did sign. Valentine is a small forward who has started six games for the Spartans as a freshman this season. Clemmons, meanwhile, gave a verbal commitment to Eastern Michigan last year, but put himself back on the market a week later.
That may have been because Iowa didn't stop showing interest in him. McCaffery, with recruiting legwork done by assistant Sherman Dillard, grew convinced Clemmons could play Big Ten ball.
“I didn’t offer him, myself, after the first two or three times I watched him,” McCaffery said. “It was like the fifth or sixth time where I came to appreciate all of the things he does to help your team win games.”
Which has sort of been like this season. Clemmons kept doing good things off the bench, and last week, McCaffery paired him with Gesell in the starting lineup. If all goes well, the duo could be starting together for a triple-digit number of games over four seasons.
Gesell was going to be guy at the point, and Clemmons would take over when Gesell had to rest. Even Clemmons didn’t see a starting spot coming, not this soon.
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I can’t lie. But it happened, and I have to live off that.”
Between Clemmons and Gesell, it was hard to tell which of the two guards was more of a catalyst for the Hawkeyes. Both played like something other than freshmen.
“Those guys were tremendous,” said Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg.
Lucious, meanwhile, wasn't so great. He was 3-of-13 from the field (Clemmons was 5-of-8), and had a turnover for every one of his seven assists.
"I'd seen him a lot at open gyms, at games at Michigan State, seeing him play in NCAA Final Fours," Clemmons said.
Lucious played in three Final Four games for Izzo's Spartans over his first two collegiate seasons, scoring 29 points in 61 minutes. But in his one and only Iowa State-Iowa game (unless they collide in the Final Four), Lucious was outshined by Hawkeye freshmen.
There were 15,000 roaring fans here Friday, a worthy counterpart to the Hilton Coliseum crowds the Hawkeyes always face in their biennial trips to Hilton Coliseum.
That's right, 15,000 in Carver. For basketball. The entertaining kind.
The arena's postgame clean-up crews will either have to be larger or work later than they have in the last few Januarys and Februarys. This won't be the last big crowd here this season.