IOWA CITY -- Way back in January, seemingly another era ago, Iowa and Northwestern engaged in a pair of games that had a varsity-junior varsity feel to them.
Iowa crushed the Wildcats 93-67 at home on Jan. 9, a game where Iowa made 57 percent of its shots and 57 percent from the free-throw line. Iowa had a 31-point lead inside of three minutes left in the game and outscored Northwestern 17-2 on the fast break.
Northwestern contained Iowa for while on Jan. 25 in Evanston. The Wildcats never led, but they were within four points inside of 17 minutes remaining. Then the Hawkeyes raced to a 22-6 run to crush Northwestern 76-50.
Two games, two 26-point decisions. With the teams playing at 8 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2) in the Big Ten Tournament's first round, Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said controlling tempo is vital for his team's chances at just competing with Iowa.
"Theyíre probably going to be very confident against us just because of the way the two games went during the season," Collins said. "The first time we played them, we were completely overmatched. I think they put up 93 points and ran up and down the floor on us all night long, and we didnít give them much resistance. I thought we played much better the second time we played them at our place.
"Their depth and athleticism and length has been a problem for us just because we havenít been blessed with the bodies because of injury and just not having the depth. We have eight guys playing. With them having 10-11 guys they can rotate, with them pushing the ball when theyíre playing well, theyíve shown they can compete against anybody and play with anybody."
Sixth-seeded Iowa (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten) has beaten the 11th-seeded Wildcats (13-18, 6-12) five straight times, including in last year's Big Ten Tournament. The teams have the same seeds as last year, but they enter this game much differently than last season. A year ago, Iowa won six of its final eight games and entered the Big Ten Tournament with NCAA hopes. Northwestern was crumbling under injuries and the game marked the finale for Coach Bill Carmody, who was dismissed after the season.
This year, Iowa was 8-4 in Big Ten play less than three weeks ago and have lost five of its last six. Northwestern received three whippings to begin the year, but buckled down defensively, slowed down the game's pace and worked to 5-5 in league play. But the Wildcats then lost seven straight before winning at Purdue on Sunday to avoid a last-place finish.
"Just try to figure a way to give ourselves a chance down the stretch," Collins said. "Thatís sort of been our formula the whole year, is we havenít been a team thatís been explosive offensively so itís hard to run away from teams in a game. For us itís been about playing great defense, keeping the game at a manageable number and giving ourselves a chance in the last five or six minutes and making some plays."
There is a potential danger for Iowa in looking past Northwestern. Friday, the winner faces Michigan State, a team that has eliminated Iowa from the last three Big Ten Tournaments.
"It would be a lot tougher it we were playing a lot better to be honest with you," Iowa forward Aaron White said. "Weíre not playing great so you really canít get ahead of yourself. Youíve just got to have that mindset: lock in Northwestern, youíve already played them twice. We know what we need to do."The Wildcats will be without guard JerShon Cobb, who is out for the season with foot and knee injuries. Cobb scored 18 points in the teams' first meeting and seven in Evanston.