Friday night's Iowa-Iowa State men’s basketball game is such a good matchup that it makes the state-rivalry aspect a sidelight instead of the main focus.
Many would dispute that, saying it’s still Hawkeyes-Cyclones, the end. And it’s true. The venom that will blare from Iowa State’s student section won’t be heard when Iowa State hosts ranked teams like Baylor and Oklahoma State. (Kansas is a different story). The pleasure and pain the fans of the winning and losing teams feel will be rivaled from few other games this season.
But this is above all that. This appears to be a captivating clash of two very good teams that play the kind of ball most fans most enjoy watching. They attack. They explode.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Cyclones led the nation in scoring at 91.7 points per game, and Iowa was sixth at 89.5. But they aren’t two wild horses that get lost at the defensive end.
Through Tuesday night, Iowa was eight in the country in rebounding margin, ISU 189th. At the start of the week, the Hawkeyes were fourth in the nation in field goal defense, Iowa State 12th.
Lest we get too wowed by numbers, the Sagarin Ratings ranked Iowa’s strength-of-schedule to date as the 251st-best through Wednesday’s games, and Iowa State’s 290th.
It’s a long season and both squads have much to prove. But you’d have to be tone-deaf to basketball not to see that both of these clubs have so much to offer.
The word I keep hearing about the Hawkeyes is “length.” ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg uses it when describing Iowa. On my TheGazette.com podcast this week, Mac McCausland said Utah Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin told him the Hawkeyes have more length than his NBA franchise’s roster does.
Eight of the 10 players in Iowa’s rotation are 6-foot-6 or taller, and their wingspans are long. They disrupt the opponents’ offensive flow. They contest shots. They collect over 15 offensive rebounds per game.
No player in ISU’s seven-man rotation is taller than 6-7. But the Cyclones use NBA-type spacing, excellent ball-movement, and a lot of 3-point shooting (10.4 made threes per game) to neutralize size-disadvantages. Plus, like Iowa, they have players who like to rebound.
The talent on both sides is for real. Devyn Marble of Iowa and Melvin Ejim of Iowa State are seniors who have added layers to their games each season. They have both become big-moment players, willing and able to carry their teams when necessary.
While the fans of the two teams may talk a lot at each other, you hear nothing but respect and admiration from the teams’ coaches and players about the other side. Of the 10 starters, just one is from Iowa.
Three of the featured players — Marble, Anthony Clemmons of Iowa, Monte Morris of ISU — are from Michigan. Ejim, Olaseni, and Cyclone guard Naz Long are from outside the U.S.
To the players, it isn’t Iowa against Iowa State as much as it is their ranked team against the other ranked team.
“When you’re a player,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, “you want to play in meaningful games. You want to play in a game that means a lot to a lot of people, and this game means a lot to a lot of people. It’s an important game. It’s why you work so hard. It’s an opportunity you cherish, you’ll remember.”
There will be so much season left after this game, so much left for both teams to prove. But one can become a king for a night, and the one that does will really have to earn it. Good stuff.