By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Saturday’s game between the Iowa men’s basketball team and Penn State has a lot to offer from a sentimental standpoint with it being played at the historic Palestra in Philadelphia.
For one thing, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery grew up in Philadelphia and was a star point guard for the University of Pennsylvania, which plays its home games at the Palestra.
McCaffery’s father also worked as a security guard at the Palestra and his family used to attend college basketball doubleheaders there on a regular basis.
Fran McCaffery is proud to be a part of the rich Philadelphia tradition in basketball and he looks forward to Saturday’s homecoming where numerous family, friends and former teammates will be on hand to offer their support.
But McCaffery also knows that all of the hugs and handshakes and nostalgia won’t mean a thing once the game starts.
McCaffery’s challenge is to make sure that his homecoming doesn’t become a distraction that could spill over to the court.
“I have a lot of family and friends there, grew up with that place being a big part of my life,” McCaffery said of the Palestra on Thursday. “I had an opportunity -- that was our home arena. My college coach is going to be there. A lot of those types of things.
“But I'm pretty good at kind of separating that from the task at hand. It's a big game on our schedule. It's a ranked opponent, a team I have a lot of respect for. They're playing extremely well. My responsibility is just to make sure we go there and play well.”
Penn State usually plays its home games at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., but Penn State head coach Pat Chambers asked McCaffery if he would mind playing at the Palestra instead, and McCaffery said he had no problem with making the switch.
“It's their home game, so they kind of play where they want it,” McCaffery said.
At first glance, it might look as if Penn State is trying to do McCaffery a favor by playing in his hometown and at a place that is dear to his heart.
But don’t fool yourself.
Penn State made the switch in order to have a better home-court advantage.
The Palestra has a seating capacity of slightly less than 9,000 and you can assume that all of those seats will be filled on Saturday, and mostly with Penn State fans.
The Bryce Jordan Center, on the other hand, has a seating capacity of 15,261 and is usually about half empty when Penn State plays there.
That’s why it was surprising when Fran McCaffery said to reporters on Thursday that he doesn’t think playing at the Palestra gives Penn State more of a home-court advantage.
“I will say this: I don't think so,” McCaffery said. “I think they're just playing at a very high level, and they have always played well at home. You look at all the games and some of the big wins they've had, they've played really well in their home arena. They do have six guys on their team from Philadelphia. The game will be sold out. It will be very loud in there. The atmosphere will be spectacular.
“But I'm more concerned about the quality of our opponent and how well they're playing than the fact that the game may or may not be more beneficial one way or the other. The bottom line is they're going to have a ton of people there. We're going to have some people there, too.”
Saturday’s game will mark only the second time that Iowa and Penn State will play with both teams ranked. The first time came in 1997 when No. 10 Penn State defeated No. 16 Iowa 95-87 on Feb. 3, 1997 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa is off to a surprising 10-3 start this season despite a number of obstacles, including Jack Nunge’s season-ending knee injury that occurred in the fifth game, and Jordan Bohannon’s season-ending hip surgery, which came after the 11th game.
Freshman forward Patrick McCaffery, who is Fran McCaffery’s son, has also appeared in just two games due to health issues.
Fran McCaffery was asked on Thursday if this is one of the most challenging seasons he has had as a head coach.
“Yeah, one of them,” he said. “I've been doing it a while. We've had some others that were incredibly challenging in ways like that but also other ways. Every team is different, whether you're young or old or you have injuries or you have one guy who's a problem. There's always challenges.
“The thing that I will say about this team is there's just no issues in terms of off-the-court things that you have to deal with. Guys kind of take care of their business, a very professional businesslike approach to what they're doing, which makes our job as coaches a lot easier.”
It also helps that Luka Garza is playing as well, or better, than any center in the country.
The 6-foot-11 junior from Washington D.C. is the only player nationally to average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 21.6 per-game average and is third in rebounding at 10 per game.
He will be matched against 6-9, 254-pound senior Mike Watkins on Saturday. Watkins is a big reason why Penn State ranks first in the Big Ten in blocks at 6.4 per game.
“He just really changes the game for them, and when he’s on the floor, they’re a different team than they are without him” Garza said of Watkins. “So I’m definitely very excited for the matchup and to play against him again. I’m always excited to play against great players.”
Penn State is trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Chambers, who is in his ninth season as head coach.
This season might be his best chance to finally breakthrough with the Nittany Lions 11-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten.
Iowa has won 10 of the last 16 games against Penn State, including the only meeting between the teams last season when the Hawkeyes prevailed 89-82 at Penn State.
Garza led the way with 22 points and 12 rebounds in that game.
Iowa has used a four-guard lineup for much of this season, even without Bohannon, but that could change on Saturday due to Penn State's size.
"It could at times, depending on a variety of factors," Fran McCaffery said.
Freshman point guard Joe Toussaint has started the last two games for Iowa and leads the team with 18 steals.
Toussaint is from New York City, so Saturday's game will be sort of homecoming for him too. He expects to have about dozen family and friends in attendance.
He also expects a physical matchup against Penn State.
"They're going to try and mug us, be up in our space and crowd us, pressure us and try to run us over, try to run on us," Toussaint said of Penn State. "Just a bunch of trying to crowd in our space and try to make us uncomfortable."
Asked if he relishes the challenge, Toussaint said:
"I'm pretty sure we're going to handle it very well."
Iowa vs. Penn State
When: Saturday 1:05 p.m.
Where: Palestra, Philadelphia
TV: Big Ten Network
All-time series: Iowa holds a 30-17 advantage and has won 10 of the last 16 meetings.