Iowa still could play Drake and Northern Iowa on an annual basis in men's basketball, but chooses not to

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Gary Barta (left) and Fran McCaffery

By Pat Harty

Iowa City, Iowa – What was expected to be a quiet Thursday suddenly turned very active on the Iowa Hawkeye sports front with three breaking news items.

It started with news that the Prime Time League would be disbanded after 31 years, continued about seven minutes later with news that the Hy-Vee Classic would be history after this coming season and was capped by 2019 Colorado quarterback Alex Padilla committing to the Iowa football team.

Thanks goodness for the football commit because the other two developments were disappointing to say the least.

The Prime Time League served a purpose as a summer basketball league for the Iowa players, but was probably even more important to the fans because it gave them their first chance to connect with the incoming players and get reacquainted with the returning players.

The rule changes that now allow college coaches to practice with their players up to eight hours a week in the summer has definitely made it harder to fit two PTL games into the weekly schedules of the Iowa players.

So I get it, the league has run its course.

At least that was the message from PTL founder and commissioner Randy Larson on Friday as he addressed the end of the popular summer league on KCJJ radio.

Larson became emotional as he talked about the league that started in 1987 thanks partly to the encouragement from former Iowa coach Tom Davis, who wanted his players to compete in a more structured environment compared to pick-up games, and the PTL offered that for 31 years and much to the delight of fans.

The rules were different in the late 1980s compared to now in that college head coaches had little access to their players in the summer.

So again, I understand the need for change and why Iowa coach Fran McCaffery ultimately chose to discontinue the league.

Larson said McCaffery was initially on board for another season when Larson reached out to him shortly after the end of the NCAA Final Four in early April.

McCaffery has since changed his mind, and that is his prerogative as the Iowa head coach.

I’ll admit, there were times when having to drive from my house on the east side of Iowa City to where the PTL games were played at the North Liberty Community Center, and in Waterloo, was somewhat tedious and time consuming.

But the PTL is also where I saw most of the Iowa players since 1992 play for the first time in person. I still remember the much-anticipated debut of Kenyon Murray in 1992, which occurred at a sweltering City High gymnasium.

Murray barely was two months removed from a senior season in which he was named the Player of the Year in Michigan. He had picked Iowa over Kentucky, UCLA and Michigan, so the anticipation of his arrival was enormous.

Murray would go on to become a three-year starter for Iowa as a 6-foot-5 small forward and one of the top defensive players during the Davis era.

Murray has lived in eastern Iowa pretty much full time since enrolling at Iowa and currently lives in Cedar Rapids.

So that’s what I’ll miss most about the PTL, seeing the next wave of Iowa players and watching the fans embrace their arrival.

As for the end of the Hy-Vee Classic, that doesn’t really bother me because I never was a big fan of it in the first place.

I’m old-fashioned in that I would prefer that Iowa play all three Division I schools from instate on a home-and-away basis every year.

But as it stands now, Iowa State is the only opponent from instate that Iowa will face on a home-and-away basis for the foreseeable future.

Iowa used to rotate on a yearly basis between playing Northern Iowa and Drake in the Hy-Vee Classic.

That setup didn’t always lead to an electric atmosphere inside Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, and frankly, it was dull most of the time.

But it was better than nothing, which is almost what we have now with Iowa choosing to opt out of playing in the event after this coming season.

Iowa’s reason for backing out is based mostly on the Big Ten schedule expanding to 20 games this coming season. That combined with Iowa playing in the Gavitt Games, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and against Iowa State this coming season has cut the number of spots that are available for nonconference opponents.

“In our last agreement we added language that provided each institution an opportunity to opt out of the remainder of the contract if they reached 22 required games by the conference,” said Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta. “The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule, but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event.”

Barta is right that the addition of two conference games is good for the fans and for Iowa’s strength of schedule.

But this decision goes much deeper than that, because if Iowa wanted to play Drake and Northern Iowa on an annual basis, it still could.

It just doesn’t want to.

That feeling started to gain support under former Iowa coach Steve Alford, or right about the same time that Northern Iowa started being more than just competitive in series, which is tied at 7-7 since 2001, with the Panthers having won five of the last six games in Cedar Falls.

The fact that Iowa hasn’t played Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls since McCaffery was tossed from an 80-60 loss in 2011 is no coincidence.

Iowa didn’t have a problem with facing the Panthers until the series became competitive.

It is similar to the series with Iowa State in football where there is also a faction of the Iowa fan base that would prefer to not play the Cyclones every season because they feel it's a no-win situation for Iowa and that it limits Iowa's scheduling flexibility for nonconference games.

I disagree with that because the series with Iowa State has been competitive for two decades and because it seems unlikely that Iowa would replace the Cyclones with better opponents.

The timing of Iowa's decision to opt out of the Hy-Vee Classic could just be a coincidence, but it doesn’t look that way.

To a Northern Iowa fan, it appears that Iowa is trying to avoid facing the Panthers in Cedar Falls due to the high risk of losing.

Based on my feedback on Twitter, Iowa fans are split on this topic.

Some are glad that Iowa doesn’t have any games scheduled against Northern Iowa or Drake for the foreseeable future because they feel that Iowa has nothing to gain from playing the Panthers, especially in Cedar Falls where the arena is barely half the size of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

They also like that Iowa will have more flexibility when scheduling nonconference games.

But on the other hand, some fans are old-fashioned like me and they appreciate the benefits and the nostalgia of facing Northern Iowa and Drake on a home-and-away basis.

As a graduate of Drake University, I’m probably a little biased with regard to this topic because one of the high points to being a Drake student was when Iowa and Iowa State both came to town.

In my day, Drake played its home games at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Des Moines, which was several miles from campus, but the student section was always full when the Hawkeyes and Cyclones came to town.

Drake now plays its home games on campus at the Knapp Center, which was always a packed house and a hostile environment for the Iowa game.

Iowa has the right, and enough leverage, to do as it pleases when it comes to scheduling nonconference games.

But if Iowa isn’t playing in the Hy-Vee Classic and refuses to play Drake and Northern Iowa in a home-and-away series, it had better schedule nonconference opponents from power conferences to justify the move and to avoid having it look like they’re avoiding Drake, and especially Northern Iowa on the road.

It was recently announced that Iowa has added Bryant University to its 2018-19 nonconference schedule.

Bryant finished 3-28 last season, 2-16 and in last place in the Northeast Conference.

Iowa has hosted the Bulldogs once before. That was in December 2008, when the Hawkeyes cruised to a 61-36 victory

The game was pretty much a forgone conclusion, but also a big payday for Bryant.

Iowa played in several home games like that last season against Chicago State, Alabama State, Grambling State, Southern and Southern Utah, winning each one easily.

Those games all lacked drama, fans and any interest outside of Iowa, and even that was low. The games were so irrelevant that they weren’t even shown on regular or cable television, but rather on a computer screen.

Those games also did nothing to help Iowa’s postseason resume. If anything, they hurt it.

So how is that better than facing Drake and Northern Iowa on a yearly basis?

And whatever happened to embracing a challenge and your fellow instate opponents?

This looks more like if you can’t beat them, you avoid them, especially in the case of Northern Iowa.

Please, somebody explain this to me because none of the feedback I’ve received so far has changed my opinion.

Most of it has centered around Iowa having bigger fish to fry or the fact that some of the other Big Ten teams don’t schedule games against lesser nonconference opponents from instate. So why should Iowa?

I was also told that Northern Iowa doesn’t respect Iowa enough to deserve to be on the schedule.

Really?

I would have no real issue if Iowa replaced Drake and Northern Iowa with opponents like Marquette or Kansas State, but there is little sign that will happen based on recent scheduling.

Iowa’s schedule from now on will include at least 25 games set in stone on a yearly basis, but that still leaves about five or six open spots.

So Iowa doesn’t have to stop playing Drake and Northern Iowa, it’s choosing to go that route, while still finding space for opponents like lowly Bryant.

And with every choice there are consequences.