IOWA CITY — Fans hardly need a Google search to find a reason why the Iowa-Wisconsin basketball series has more flavor than tailgate bratwurst.
There’s Ben Brust bolting from his Iowa recruitment for Wisconsin four years ago. Or Jarrod Uthoff leaving Wisconsin for Iowa two years ago. You can add Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery’s ejection in January, or Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan’s sideline demeanor. Sprinkle in the tied series, border rivalry, national rankings, Big Ten standings and national television, and you get the idea.
Yet for the players, Saturday’s showdown boils down to one aspect: beating a competitive rival for the sake of winning. Period.
“I think sometimes that’s hard in today’s world, in the hype of thinking about the future, thinking about standings, thinking about what you’re going to do after the game, about your career as a whole,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “It comes down to you’re just playing a game of basketball and that’s the fun part of it.
“You’re playing an intense game between two teams that are really going to get down and compete and it’s just a lot of fun. That’s what it comes down to. The game of basketball is having fun, playing hard, competing and you know that’s what it will be.”
In the big picture, Saturday’s game carries extreme importance to both squads. No. 15 Iowa (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) sits one game in the loss column behind Michigan and Michigan State in the league standings. No. 18 Wisconsin (21-5, 8-5) is two back. Today’s game has ramifications for a shot the regular-season title, a higher seed at the Big Ten Tournament and possibly a better location next month in the NCAA tournament.
The 105-year-0ld series is tied 79-79. Since McCaffery took over at Iowa, it’s tied 3-3. Iowa has scored 409 in those six games. Wisconsin has scored 408. Two games ended in overtime and one other was decided by one point.
While the facts are impressive and the rivalry is undeniable, it has no impact on how either coach views the series.
“It’s neighboring states,” Ryan said. “In the game of basketball, it is hard to say it’s one team that has more a rivalry than another team when you’re situated where Wisconsin is and where Iowa is. It’s the conference.
“I don’t get into that. You’d have to ask other people more about meanings or rivalries or things like that.”
Brust originally signed with former Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter but was released from his scholarship after Lickliter was fired. He’s a pivotal player for the Badgers and sits just two points shy of 1,000.
In the teams’ Jan. 5 game at Kohl Center, Brust was held scoreless in the first half. He then missed only one shot in the second half and scored 19 points in a 75-71 Badgers’ win.
“His ability to make the dagger 3 has been impressive over the years,” McCaffery said. “Not everybody can do that.”
Uthoff red-shirted at Wisconsin in 2011-12, then chose to transfer after the season. It ignited a high-profile battle, and Uthoff was restricted from attending another Big Ten school on scholarship for one year. Uthoff still picked Iowa, paid his own way and sat out. He’s played in all 25 Iowa games and ranks third in scoring at 8.3 points and fourth in rebounding at 5.0 rebounds a night.
In the teams’ previous meeting, Iowa led 35-24 at halftime but fizzled to start the second half. McCaffery quickly picked up two technical fouls and was ejected. Wisconsin caught up and pulled out the win. McCaffery later was suspended one game for the outburst.
The past adds context to a rich series. But when the ball tips at 11 a.m., that history evaporates. It’s about the present, which is much more important to the players.
“We know what we need to do,” Iowa’s Devyn Marble said. “We know what kind of challenge they present. We know it’s an important game. We know, even though we’re at home, we’ve got to come out with the same intensity and energy we would if we were on the road. I think that’s what it’s going to come down to, who wants it more, to be honest.”
“I love playing them,” White said. “I like playing against the best and Coach Ryan has them, they’ve been in the top four of the Big Ten for the past however many years so they’re one of the best in our league.”