IOWA CITY — Ready or not, here it comes.
For Iowa basketball the “it” is the 18-game Big Ten schedule in the nation’s best conference. The rating percentage index (RPI) — a measurement that often determines NCAA tournament bids — gap between the top-ranked Big Ten and No. 2 Big East is greater than the Big East and the No. 6 Atlantic 10. Six Big Ten teams rank in the Associated Press top 25, including four currently in the top 10. The league boasts a 113-30 overall record.
That said, Iowa is better positioned for the Big Ten now than at any time since 2007. The Hawkeyes finished their non-conference record 11-2, their best start since 2004-05. Iowa has won six straight games for the first time since 2004. With a combination of talent, depth and a healthy dose of confidence, the Hawkeyes like where they are headed entering Big Ten play.
“I can’t wait,” Iowa senior Eric May said. “Obviously the Big Ten is a obviously a great conference, and I’ve been excited for the Big Ten to start since the beginning of the year. We’ve got a tough opener, and I’m ready for it.”
Iowa faces a three-game opening grind of No. 6 Indiana, No. 2 Michigan and No. 20 Michigan State, which boast a combined record of 34-3. Iowa finished 2-3 against those teams last year, knocking off Indiana and Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But Michigan and Indiana are deeper and ranked higher now than at any point last year.
Seven of Iowa’s non-conference opponents have winning records but only one, Wichita State (11-1), has been ranked. The Hawkeyes won two grinding in-state battles with Iowa State (9-3) and Northern Iowa (6-5). Losses to Wichita State and Virginia Tech (9-2) provided learning opportunities, from handling physical guard play to defending in transition.
“I think it was good for us that we had a couple of rough patches, a couple of games where we didn’t play our best,” Iowa sophomore Aaron White said. “I learned from every game because we didn’t take any game for granted. We didn’t come into this game (Coppin State) or the South Carolina State game and since the name on their jersey isn’t Indiana we were still ready for them, which was big.
“In the Big Ten, you turn right around and play great teams, one right after the other.”
Iowa won’t play against until Dec. 31. Despite the team’s record, junior guard Devyn Marble said the team has several improvements to make, especially on defense and rebounding.
“I don’t think we’re as good as we can be yet,” Marble said. “We’ve been playing really well, we’ve been playing very unselfish, been getting a lot of assists. But we haven’t faced anybody of Indiana’s caliber yet, so when we come back we’ve got to be focused and really in tune when we get to practice.”
So are the Hawkeyes ready?
“We’ll find out pretty quick,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think we are. We have some work to do between now and then. But we have great character, great camaraderie on the team, and our guys will be ready.”