IOWA CITY — Heads turned and eyes bugged when the score flashed across television screens and telephones two years ago.
Iowa 72, Wisconsin 65. At the Kohl Center, a place where nine consecutive Iowa teams were buried mercilessly. The Hawkeyes relentlessly attacked the Badgers and closed out the game tenaciously. A year ago, Iowa nearly pulled off the same type of win in Madison but succumbed to a late-game Wisconsin run and lost in double overtime.
Sunday, the border rivals meet as ranked foes for the first time since 2001. Iowa leads the all-time series 79-78, and the last five games between the teams reflect the razor-thin rivalry. No. 22 Iowa (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten) has won three of five and the average margin of victory is 3.8 points. Wisconsin’s two wins were beyond regulation.
“I always love playing them,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “I always love going there. They’ve got a great team this year. Pretty much all the guys are back.
“Obviously all of us know the Big Ten teams, and that’s one of the top ones. We’re all excited to go up there and play them.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery’s relative success at the Kohl Center — one win, a double-overtime loss — is striking. No. 4 Wisconsin (14-0, 1-0) is 189-18 at the Kohl Center under Bo Ryan. The Hawkeyes have yet to reach the NCAA tournament under McCaffery. But Iowa has found favorable matchups against the Badgers and exploited them.
“I think what we’ve done is we’ve played consistently well in those games,” McCaffery said. “I think we’ve locked into their style of play and tried to figure out how our style of play can be effective in that environment. I don’t think there’s anything overly scientific to it, to be honest with you. I don’t want to over dramatize some brilliant scheme that we’ve come up with. I don’t think that’s it at all. I think we’ve played hard, we’ve played tough.
“I think we go into the game respecting what they do and how they do it and have taken the time to figure out how they do it and try to combat that. We’ve had some success, and we’ve also lost some games. So we’ll go up there with a solid game plan and an intensity level that hopefully will be successful.”
Wisconsin is off to its best start in 100 years. The Badgers rank No. 1 nationally in fouls per game (14.4) and turnovers per game (8.2). Wisconsin averages 8.3 3-pointers a game and tops the Big Ten in 3-point percentage (39.2). Wisconsin sophomore forward Sam Dekker has scored in double figures 12 times this year, and center Frank Kaminsky has the Big Ten’s only 40-point game. Neither started more than three games in 2012-13.
Josh Gasser originally was tapped as the team’s starting point guard last year, but suffered a season-ending ACL tear before the season. That allowed Traevon Jackson — son of former Ohio State star Jimmy Jackson — to blossom at the point. Gasser is back this year at his natural off-guard slot and averaging 8.4 points.
That’s three top-flight players that didn’t start regularly for the Badgers last year. In a strange way, McCaffery said Gasser’s injury last year paved the way for Wisconsin’s current success.
“It helped them in two areas. With him being out, it helped Tre Jackson develop into the player that he’s become,” McCaffery said. “And then when Josh came back, he didn’t miss a beat, which we didn’t think he would. He’s too good.
“You look at that team and you say they’ve lost some guys, but they’re all juniors and seniors. Sam Dekker is a sophomore, but he’s one of the best players in the country so that’s a different animal there.”
But difficulty doesn’t translate to invincibility. Iowa’s recent history at the Kohl Center — along with their own abilities — gives the players confidence they can compete.
“They’re at home so we’ll feed off their crowd, and I think we’ve just got to play the same way we did at Iowa State,” Iowa senior Devyn Marble said. “Just close out the game. I don’t think being on the road should bother us at all.
“They’re not top four in the country for no reason. It’s going to definitely be a tough challenge. They haven’t lost yet, and they definitely don’t want to lose to us.”