EVANSTON, Ill. — With business effectively taken care of here Saturday, the Iowa men’s basketball team embarks on the biggest week of Big Ten play it’s had in seemingly forever.
Here comes a monster game to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, an ESPN Super Tuesday game, a Mike Tirico/Jay Bilas game. It’s Michigan State, the bane of the Hawkeyes’ existence last season, bringing its ever-dangerous crew to town.
If Iowa prevails and then wins at Illinois at the end of this week, it will be 7-2 at the halfway point of conference play and a genuine contender for the Big Ten championship. Can you hear the roars already starting to rumble in Carver?
After the Hawkeyes stuffed Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena, 76-50, we got the even-keel spiel from the Hawkeyes’ head coach and starting point guard.
“The next game’s always the most important one,” said the guard, Mike Gesell, who sparkled Saturday.
“For us, it’s no different,” Coach Fran McCaffery said. “You just prepare for the next game. ‘What do we have to do to beat Northwestern? What do we have to do to beat Michigan State?’
“We’re going to look into a game plan. Obviously, we’re well-aware of what Michigan State has done this year, what they have done under Coach Izzo. They’ve got one of the best teams in the country. They were preseason (No.) 1, they’re 1 or 2 now, 3, right in there.”
The Spartans took a No. 3 ranking in both major polls into their clash of the league unbeatens with Michigan Saturday night in East Lansing. They will slip in Monday's next poll after their 80-75 loss to the Wolverines. Not that the rankings will matter. This will be the definition of the clichéd “statement game” for the Hawkeyes.
The Hawkeyes had the look of a winner here, and not because they, well, won. They met a team that had been doing a great job lately of enforcing its will against opponents, and they enforced their will on the Wildcats. They rebounded with ferocity, they defended with vigor.
Northwestern tripped up Indiana at Bloomington the Saturday before, for crying out loud. It had held its previous four foes to an average of 46 points in regulation. Iowa had 46 in the second half alone.
“Those guys are as good as anyone we’ve played,” Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said, and his team has played Michigan State (a 54-40 MSU win here).
“They’re really good. They can play with anybody and they can beat anybody.”
They can play with anybody if their bench is doing what it’s done most of the season. That spigot was temporarily closed at Michigan Wednesday in the Hawkeyes’ 75-67 loss, but the non-starters went back to work here.
“You can’t always rely on guys like Aaron White and Dev (Marble) to score 30 points a game,” said Iowa junior center Gabe Olaseni. “If we just chip in the way we did today, I think we’re a very good team.”
If Olaseni chips in the way he did against the ‘Cats, Iowa is a very good team. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and a one-hand jam off a rebound that was a vivid reminder to Northwestern that it was at an athletic disadvantage against this team for the second time in 16 days.
Olaseni, a Londoner, said he likes “British Airways” as a nickname.
“I think I would embrace having my teammates call me that. ... Usually they just call me ‘Gabe.’ ”
Hey, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Amid the general feel-good postgame vibe from the Hawkeyes, Marble sounded out of sorts. He had a scoreless, cheerless first half before posting 14 points in what evolved into a runaway.
“I’m just irritable right now,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
McCaffery jumped — the coach’s own word — on Marble during the first half and at halftime. Marble said that didn’t bother him. Maybe it was the short turnaround, flying home from Michigan Thursday morning because of bad weather there Wednesday night, and then turning around and traveling to Chicagoland on Friday.
He did mention Saturday’s 6:30 a.m. wake-up. “Sleep hasn’t been the most friendly thing to me lately,” he said.
It may all be for the better. Iowa needs Marble to be vintage Marble Tuesday night against Michigan State’s terrific perimeter players like Gary Harris and Keith Appling way more than they needed him to be brilliant against Northwestern.
At least the senior was forthright about what the MSU game means.
“It is a big deal,” he said. “It’s another resume-building opportunity … (against) arguably the best team in our conference.”
The atmosphere, McCaffery said, will be “phenomenal.”
The polar vortex hasn’t been built that can cool the anticipation for Tuesday night in Carver.