DES MOINES —
For the first time since at least the mid-2000s, both Iowa and Iowa State head into their annual December matchup with legitimate NCAA tournament expectations.
Those postseason hopes will take a hit for the loser of Friday night’s showdown in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes (7-2) and Cyclones (6-2) have each lost to the two best teams they’ve played; Iowa to No. 24 Wichita State and Virginia Tech, and Iowa State to No. 11 Cincinnati and No. 21 UNLV.
Each team could use a quality nonconference win before league play starts. What better way to grab one at the expense of your rival?
“It’s going to be fun. We’ve got to go out there and be ready. We’ve got to go out there and play very intense basketball, because I know they’re going to be ready,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Iowa State has incorporated a new small forward, Will Clyburn, and a new point guard in senior Korie Lucious. Clyburn has been everything the Cyclones hoped, with a team-high 16.1 points per game along with 8.4 rebounds.
Slowly but surely, Lucious is finding his way with the Cyclones as well.
Lucious, a key cog in Final Four teams at Michigan State before transferring to Iowa State, needed a nine-assist performance against BYU just to bring his assist-to-turnover ratio even. He had nine more assists Tuesday night in an 83-72 win over Florida Gulf Coast to go along with a season-high 17 points and 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range.
“He did a good job, I thought, of spreading the ball around for the most part. At times, he’s still trying to go between his legs too many times or make a home run pass. And he’s just got to trust his teammates,” Hoiberg said.
Iowa is also trying to settle its point guard situation.
Freshman Mike Gesell was given the reigns to start the season. But after notching just two assists in losses to the Shockers and Hokies, coach Fran McCaffery started fellow freshman Anthony Clemmons at point guard and shifted Gesell to shooting guard on Tuesday night.
Clemmons responded with eight assists and no turnovers in an 87-63 win over South Dakota, and Gesell had 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field.
“Right now it looks like that’s a good move,” McCaffery said. “Gesell will play a ton of (point guard). But he is such a good scorer, and he’s so good off the ball. We’re playing him both places.”
Iowa State broke a seven-year NCAA tournament drought last season, advancing to the third round before losing to eventual national champion Kentucky. Iowa is hoping to snap its seven-year drought with an NCAA bid this spring.
Fans on both sides of this rivalry have long pegged Friday night as the first time since perhaps 2006 — when Iowa reached the NCAA tournament and Iowa State was expected to — that there would be more than simple bragging rights on the line.
But a loss would qualify as yet another squandered opportunity for each team — and it’s never too early to start building a resume for March.
“We’ve got to do a good job with our preparation these next few days getting ready. They play multiple defenses. They’ve got some good young players and their older players have really stepped up,” Hoiberg said.