IOWA CITY — Eric May grew up nearly halfway between Iowa City and Madison, Wis., and saw an awful lot of red and white mixed with black and gold.
May, an Iowa senior guard and a Dubuque Wahlert graduate, went to high school with friends who lived across the Mississippi River. That’s one reason why Saturday’s game at sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena offers extra incentives for May.
“Every Big Ten game is important, but it’s always good to get the ones that are close to home,” May said. “Dubuque’s split. There are a lot of Wisconsin fans up there. It’s good to have that bragging rights, I guess.
“It’s one you’d really like to get.”
Iowa (12-5, 1-3 Big Ten) earned the upper-hand on its series against Wisconsin (13-4, 4-0 Big Ten) with a pair of sterling performances last year. The Hawkeyes swept the Badgers for the first time since 1995 and ended a nine-game skid at Madison.
The well-entrenched rivalry, which began in 1909, has escalated from the court to the recruiting battlefield in recent years. Wisconsin junior guard Ben Brust originally signed with Iowa only to ask for — and receive — a scholarship release after Coach Todd Lickliter was fired in March 2010. According to Big Ten rules, Brust was not allowed to earn a scholarship with another Big Ten school. He twice appealed the ruling and a league board reversed its decision. Brust then picked up a Wisconsin scholarship.
The Big Ten since altered its transfer rules, which later aided former Wisconsin and current Iowa player Jarrod Uthoff. After Brust’s situation, the Big Ten allowed intraconference transfers to earn scholarships, which previously was forbidden. Uthoff left Wisconsin in a highly publicized departure last spring, and Coach Bo Ryan restricted Uthoff from contacting more than 25 schools. Eventually the list was trimmed to just the Big Ten, but Uthoff still decided to pick Iowa.
Uthoff, a red-shirt freshman, is sitting out this season per NCAA rules and paying his own way to college because of Wisconsin’s restriction. Iowa officials declined to make Uthoff, a Cedar Rapids Jefferson graduate, available for interviews this week.
“It seems like there’s always something,” May said. “These two schools are so close together there’s always sort of conflicts between the schools in terms of recruiting. They recruit a lot of guys around this area. But we know it doesn’t hold much weight once the game starts.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, Ryan and other Big Ten coaches joined Commissioner Jim Delany for dinner in October. Ryan and McCaffery sat together, and McCaffery said, “there’s no issues there at all.”
Brust is a do-it-all guard, averaging 10.9 points (third), 3.1 assists (first) and 6.1 rebounds (third) a game for the Badgers. He and Iowa junior Devyn Marble developed a solid relationship when both were Iowa recruits, and Marble said their mothers continue their friendship.
“That’s still my guy, but we don’t talk really much anymore,” Marble said. “I know my mom and his mom are still cool, though. They still talk. For a game like this, they might come in and watch it together.”
Brust has started every game this year. McCaffery, who diligently tried to re-recruit Brust, said the 6-foot-1 guard is effective as both a passer and a scorer.
“What you’re seeing is a guy who’s comfortable in his junior year, knows the system, knows what’s required of him and has accepted that well and is fulfilling his role,” McCaffery said.
Ryan touted Uthoff as a player who could fill minutes immediately last season. Uthoff, a 6-8 forward, was a red-shirt in his only year at Wisconsin. With Uthoff’s knowledge of Wisconsin’s structure, his current teammates expect him to help the Hawkeyes prepare this week.
“He definitely helps, especially with the scout team and stuff like that,” Marble said. “Adding him is definitely a good asset. He’s still preparing like any other week.”
Wisconsin is coming off a 69-64 upset of No. 2 Indiana at Bloomington. Ryan, who tied legendary coach John Wooden for 38th in all-time wins with 664, won’t let his team bask too long in the glory of its upset.
“The thing is though in this league, like I told our guys, ‘Let’s enjoy for 24 hours and then we know we got to get ready for Iowa at Iowa,’” Ryan said after the game.
After the season sweep, Iowa leads the all-time series 78-77. Marble said he expects a determined effort from Wisconsin.
“They’re going to come in with the mindset that they lost to us twice last year, and I’m pretty sure they want revenge for that,” Marble said. “They’re still undefeated ,so they’re looking at an opportunity for a Big Ten championship.”
“We’re a more improved team this year, more experienced, more talent,” Iowa junior Melsahn Basabe said. “I think we should get the same result.”
So is that a prediction?
“I’m not that silly,” Basabe said with a laugh.