By Pat Harty
DES MOINES, Iowa – This was a classic in name only.
The Iowa men’s basketball team made easy work of a cold-shooting Northern Iowa squad, winning 77-54 on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
The game was the final act for the Big Four Classic, and from an entertainment standpoint, it left much to be desired.
No. 22 Iowa trailed for just 36 seconds and led by as many as 29 points while improving to 8-2 on the season. The Hawkeyes also finished 6-1 in the Big Four Classic, the only loss coming to Northern Iowa in 2014.
The Panthers didn’t stand a chance on Saturday, however, as Iowa used its considerable height advantage to assert its dominance on both ends of the floor.
Making matters worse for Northern Iowa was that it played without center Austin Phyfe because of an injury.
“That’s something we focused on with our scouting report,” said 6-foot-11 sophomore center Luka Garza, who along with 6-9 forward Tyler Cook led Iowa with 17 points apiece. “We knew they probably weren’t going to have Phyfe and he’s a big key to their inside presence.
“So without him in there, we knew we had even more of a size advantage.”
The first game on Saturday between Iowa State and Drake was more competitive as the Cyclones trailed for most of the game before rallying for a 77-68 victory.
Iowa’s game, on the other hand, was a mismatch from start to finish and a horrible way to end an event that had lasted for seven years.
Northern Iowa had virtually no answer for Iowa in the paint on both ends of the floor. The Panthers resorted mostly to launching perimeter shots because there was nothing available in the paint.
It was hard to tell if Iowa’s defense was that good or if Northern Iowa’s offense was that bad. The correct answer is probably a combination of both.
“We knew that coming in that was going to be a challenge,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said of Iowa’s height advantage. “Because I said it during the week that Cook is playing as well as about anybody in the country.
“There can’t be but a handful guys in the entire country that are doing all of the things that he’s doing right now for their basketball team.”
The Big Four Classic was started in 2012 mostly because Iowa and Iowa State refused to keep playing Northern Iowa and Drake in a home-and-away series.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta met with the media prior to tipoff of Saturday’s game to address the end of the Big Four Classic. But he was mostly evasive when asked specifically why Iowa won’t commit to playing Northern Iowa or Drake anymore.
Barta said that he has to do what is in Iowa’s best interest in its pursuit of championships.
And he apparently believes that facing teams such as Savannah State, Western Carolina and Bryant is a better way to achieve that goal than facing Northern Iowa or Drake.
So what it basically comes down to is that both Iowa and Iowa State refuse to play Northern Iowa and Drake on the road because it’s just not worth the risk or hassle anymore.
That’s me saying that because Barta never would say it publicly.
Iowa would be receptive to playing both teams at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but officials from Northern Iowa and Drake have said they would prefer to play at a neutral site.
So instead, they won’t play for the foreseeable future.
Northern Iowa certainly did nothing on Saturday to promote its cause.
The Panthers had no answer for Iowa’s man-to-man or zone defenses in the first half, which ended with Iowa leading 39-18.
Northern Iowa missed 12 shots in a row during one stretch in the first half and finished the half just 6-of-28 from the field and 2-for-15 from 3-point range.
Iowa bolted to a 12-3 lead and then spent the rest of the first half padding its lead, which climbed to 23 points before halftime.
Iowa junior point guard Jordan Bohannon isn’t known for his defense, but he excelled in that area on Saturday, helping to limit Northern Iowa point guard A.J. Green to just two points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field.
“I knew I wanted to pressure him and kind of make his looks as tough as possible and I thought I did a pretty good job of that to start the game,” Bohannon said. “But I couldn’t have done it without the big guys helping out on ball screens as well.”
Iowa’s next game is Tuesday against 3-9 Western Carolina at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Catamounts will be a heavy underdog and Iowa should win easily to help pad the win column.
It’s unfortunate that Saturday’s game was the last against Northern Iowa for the foreseeable future.
Count me in the crowd that would’ve preferred that Iowa keep playing Northern Iowa and Drake both home and away because it made our state unique in that regard.
And judging from Saturday’s mismatch, home-court advantage might have been Northern Iowa’s only chance to be competitive against Iowa.