Something very strange has been happening to me lately. Nothing seems to end when it should.
This began a week ago Saturday when the Iowa men’s basketball team defeated Penn State in double-overtime. After I filed my column from that game in Iowa City, I drove to St. Louis, where Northern Iowa would play Illinois State the next day in the Missouri Valley Conference final.
On the way down while tooling around the dial on my trusty XM Satellite Radio, I saw the Ohio Valley Conference title game was winding down. Austin Peay and Morehead State.
We understand the point, but also understand that this is likely an economic decision based on projected supply and demand. Michigan might have had its worst record in its history, but it still has more fans than Northwestern. The game is also homecoming, which always counts for something.
Rovell is, of course, right. More people want to see a Michigan team coming off a 3-9 season than a Northwestern club coming off a 9-4 year.
But that doesn’t mean the Hlog can’t stir the already-turbulent water between Northwestern and Iowa fans by manufacturing a tempest in a teapot.
And, just because more people would rather see Michigan than Northwestern doesn’t make it right. Ozzie Davis’ character Da Mayor said it best for all of us many years ago in Spike Lee’s movie “Do The Right Thing.”:
IOWA CITY — Forget the won-lost records. Do wins really get much better than the kind the Iowa men’s basketball team earned Saturday?
The Hawkeyes’ 75-67 double-overtime triumph over 21-win Penn State meant the difference between going 5-13 in the Big Ten for the second-straight year or dipping to 4-14. So from a numbers standpoint, it wasn’t exactly significant.
From a pride perspective, though, it was huge. It was the kind of win that made every fan in the gym leave smiling in appreciation and admiration. Those who paid 10 bucks to get in got a genuine bargain.
An injury-plagued, ragtag squad comes to the end of the line in the regular-season and somehow guts out a win over a team that had won at Michigan State and Illinois in February.
Senior forward Cyrus Tate, whose Big Ten season basically was wrecked by an ankle injury, had his best game in two months. His frontline partner, sophomore Jarryd Cole, had his best game of the season.
Guard Matt Gatens, a freshman who is among the Big Ten’s leaders in minutes played, went all 50 this day in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He had enough left to stick all four of his free-throws in the overtimes.
Fellow guard Devan Bawinkel also played the full 50, splitting the nets with a 3-pointer midway through the second OT to retie the game. Iowa never trailed again.
Then there was Jake Kelly, who threw up, then threw punch after punch into Penn State’s midsection until the Lions were finally toppled.
“He is something else,” said his father, Bob Kelly. “He is one tough kid. He’s played with a lot of injuries this year that people don’t know about.”
The issue of whether Kelly would even play in his fluish state was in doubt all the way until pre-game warm-ups. Or was it, really?
“I usually do play pretty good sick,” Jake said. “My dad always says that. He came to the game today, said ‘Oh, you’ve got to play, you always play your best game when you’re sick.
“I was like ‘All right.’ I really didn’t want to, though.”
But Kelly declared himself fit to go in warm-ups. “He had the option,” said Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter. “He did not have to play. But he’s highly competitive and chose to play.”
Play, Kelly did. His teammates fed on that and played awfully hard, too. They got ahead, they fell behind. They let a 9-point lead slip away in the final 2 1/2 minutes of regulation. They sent the game into overtime on a Kelly-to-Cole feed with 10 seconds left.
Kelly banked in a 3-pointer in the first OT for an Iowa lead. Penn State rallied to tie it again.
They went to a second overtime. With 54 seconds left and Iowa up 68-67, Kelly banked another 3-pointer. This one rolled around the rim before dropping down. It was the kill shot.
Penn State didn’t score again, and the Hawkeyes closed their home schedule with a game that should provide lingering warm feelings for their fans.
Several hours after having a 101-degree temperature and an hour after leaving the game in the first minute of the second-half to vomit into a trash can in the arena’s tunnelway (“I drank too much blue POWERade,” he said), Kelly and his comrades were winners.
“When he first started the second-half, I could see it coming,” Bob Kelly said. “He got real white — even whiter than he is.”
But Bob’s boy is quickly becoming a bit of a mythic figure in these parts. He is the point guard Iowa didn’t know it had. He is the leader — through actions, not words — Iowa may not have known it had.
In his last seven games, Kelly is averaging 20.4 points in an offense that isn’t exactly free-flow. He had a career-high 11 assists Saturday. He blocked two shots.
The only thing he didn’t do was call “Bank!” on his two bombs off the backboard.
Joked Lickliter: “I said ‘Bank it!’ Jake’s really good at listening.”
In a more serious moment, the coach said “He’s going to be a terrific player because he’s skilled, talented, and likes coaching.”
And something else, something that was on display more than ever Saturday. The guy’s got heart.
The Hawkeyes are 5-13 in the Big Ten. Again. But this isn’t a 5-13 team. It isn’t an NCAA tourney team, but when Tate is healthy enough to contribute, it’s a different entity.
And when Kelly is unhealthy enough to contribute, all the better.
Northwestern and Iowa have a history of football animosity for each other, and this week just aggravated it.
Maybe the rivalry began in earnest in 1995 when Northwestern center Rob Johnson said “I don’t want to just beat that team, I want to hurt Iowa.”
That wasn’t nice. It also was just before the Hawkeyes’ 21-game win streak over the Wildcats ended, so you could see how some of the purple guys may have had their fill of all things Iowa.
Gary Barnett supposedly chose Iowa as his model when he took over the Northwestern program in 1992. His guys beat the Hawkeyes in 1995 and went on to the Rose Bowl that season.
While the Wildcats have had just four winning records since that 1995 season, they’ve won seven of their last 12 games against the Hawkeyes.
Harsh feelings cropped up again last December when Iowa got the Big Ten’s Outback Bowl slot instead of Northwestern even though the Hawkeyes were 8-4, the Wildcats were 9-3, and Northwestern beat Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa fans laughed, Northwestern fans griped, and snarky Internet wars of words between the two weren’t hard to locate.
Why bring this up in March? Because there’s a fresh diss to discuss, one that came from the Hawkeyes’ camp.
Iowa announced its football ticket prices for 2009. Season tickets, wisely, are being held at $339. Single-game tickets for the Oct. 10 Michigan game will go for $70. Single-game seats for the Sept. 9 Arizona game will go for $65. All others will be $52. The Nov. 7 Northwestern contest is among the others.
Is that such an insult? Absolutely.
Michigan went 3-9 last season. Northwestern was 9-4. But the Iowa organization deemed Hawkeye fans’ interest in seeing a rebuilding Wolverines program is higher than watching a Wildcats team that beat Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2008!
You would think Iowa might at least consider jacking up the price of the Northwestern game instead of the Sept. 19 meeting with Arizona.
Arizona? Iowa and Arizona don’t have a rivalry. The don’t share a climate, let alone a conference. They haven’t met in 11 years. It’s just a game.
Other than the fact the Arizona game is a lot more likely to be played in nicer weather than the Northwestern clash two months later, what’s the hook?
With Northwestern, it’s a ready-made sale. Those smarty-pants from Evanston got us here last year, the promotions could say. But this time it’s personal.
OK, it’s not an original line. Still, it will be personal. For both sides.
Those Iowa hicks took our Outback Bowl spot, Northwestern can say. Those Wildcats didn’t beat us, we beat ourselves with turnovers, the Iowa side can say.
Run a reverse, Iowa ticket office. Sell $70 tickets for the Northwestern game, and $52 seats for Michigan.
Seventy bucks for Michigan is overpriced nostalgia, like charging $70 to see the remnants of ‘70s rock bands. People may pay it, but that doesn’t make it right.
Is this not a premium logo?
Folks, Michigan lost to Toledo last season. It got flattened by Notre Dame and Illinois. It got outscored by 104 points over the season.
Some year, the Wolverines may be powerful once more. That year isn’t likely to be this year.
Michigan is Iowa’s “premium” game? It’s more like unleaded.
If the Northwestern men’s basketball team wins at Ohio State Sunday and other games this weekend break the right way, Northwestern could have the seventh seed in next week’s Big Ten tourney and meet 10th-seed Iowa in Thursday’s first round.
With is “premium game” snub in football, the Wildcats basketballers may carry the water for their insulted football brothers, and take it out against the Hawkeyes in Indianapolis.
See what you’ve done, Iowa ticket office. It’s like a pebble in a lake. Even the fish feel it.
What two words stir more emotion from Iowa basketball fans than “Ed Hightower?”
OK, “Steve Alford.”
But Hightower is the one Big Ten basketball official that seems to be more of a lightning rod for fans than any other. Why does Ed Hightower hate the Hawkeyes? I’ve heard that question more than once.
Fans of many other teams have asked the same thing, only they substituted “Buckeyes” or “Jayhawks” or someone else for “Hawkeyes.”
I suspect that’s primarily because of Hightower’s longevity in the sport, the fact he continues to work about as many games as anyone else, and his rather theatrical way of calling a game.
But this is a fellow who has worked 11 Final Fours, and they don’t give those assignments to just anyone who owns a black-and-white striped shirt.
I like Hightower. He brings his own energy to a game, and he is quick with a smile (more officials should understand an occasional smile can be a powerful asset).
But he calls a lot of fouls and always has. Statistics show games involving Hightower’s crews mean more personal fouls than most other games. Fans and teams, I believe, would prefer a few less fouls in their basketball diets.
But 724 fouls were called in Hightower’s 19 games compared to 611 in Hillary’s.
Does that mean one is doing a better or worse job than the other? I don’t think so. But it’s six more fouls per game, which means coaches and players are getting a different game when Hillary is the official as they are when it’s Hightower.
Hightower has worked 64 games this season, in 22 different states. Those of us in the Iowa media will see him working a 3 p.m. game in Iowa City and joke he has a 7 p.m. game that same day in Texas or someplace.
From last Monday to yesterday, Sunday Feb. 22, Hightower worked games at Connecticut, Purdue, Louisville, Michigan, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.
There are airline pilots and truck drivers who would read that and shake their heads in amazement.
Do people treat you like this at your job?
But Tom O’Neill, another Big Ten ref, has officiated 82 games this season, through Sunday. Other Big Ten officials, J.D. Collins and Rick Hartzell, have done 76 and 73, respectively.
However, no regular Big Ten official one has quite the number of foul-calls in their games that Hightower has. Since the 1996-97 season, his games have averaged 39 fouls. Maybe he has a keener eye than most and sees fouls others miss. Maybe he simply feels rules are to be enforced as strictly as possible.
Sunday, Hightower reffed the Northwestern-Minnesota game. Forty-two fouls were called.
It drives some a little crazy.
Still, only 12 technical fouls have been called in Hightower’s 64 games, while 29 were whistled in O’Neill’s 82 games. That would make me more suspicious of O’Neill’s work, not Hightower’s.
Not that there’s any cause to be suspicious of any of these gents. Many jobs are a whole lot harder than they look, and officiating high-level basketbal is certainly among them.
I figure if the NCAA thought highly enough of Hightower to have him work 11 Final Fours, he’s plenty good enough for the Big Ten.
The Michigan men’s basketball team plays Iowa today, giving us hope.
Maybe one or both of the teams will crack 50, 55, or — dare I say it? — 60 points in the game.
The Wolverines did tally 74 in their 12-point home win over Minnesota Thursday. Perhaps the momentum of that effort will send Carver-Hawkeye Arena back in time, when teams sometimes traded scores on consecutive possessions.
Living here, we think offense appearing to be played in quicksand is a Hawkeye thing. Yes, Iowa does rank 304th of the 330 Division I teams in scoring with 60.6 points per game. That’s 31 less than North Carolina averages.
But the Hawkeyes reside in a conference that plays different ball than most other American leagues.
“The Big Ten puts a huge emphasis on defense,” said Big Ten Network studio analyst Tim Doyle. “The ACC and the Big East, they’re more willing to give up a hoop thinking they’ll get a hoop on the next possession.”
OK, Doyle’s a Big Ten Network guy and a former Big Ten player. He played very well for three seasons at Northwestern after transferring from St. John’s, near his hometown on Long Island.
But he doesn’t sound like a Big Ten puppet on the air, or off it.
“I don’t know if it’s in the water,” he said, “but it does seem like guys on the East Coast and maybe the SEC are more athletic. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s what the farmers are feeding us here.”
Through Thursday’s games, these were the points per team in conference games of the six BCS leagues: 1. ACC 73.1, 2. SEC 72.0, 3. (tie) Big 12 and Big East 71.0, 5. Pac-10 67.1, 6. Big Ten 63.4.
“But look at the defensive production,” Doyle said. “Look at points-per-game allowed, field goal percentage defense. Look at the assist-to-turnover ratio. They aren’t gaudy or sexy categories, but the Big Ten dominates them.”
If you like that kind of ball, it’s great. But take the names off the uniforms and which do you think would get more of a following, the Big 12 or Big East with seven teams apiece averaging over 76 points per game, or the Big Ten, with only Michigan State (79th at 73.8 ppg) among the nation’s top 145 teams in scoring?
Seven Big Ten teams are among the country’s top 45 in scoring defense. Iowa is 12th at 58.9 points allowed per game. Even as short-handed as they’ve been lately, the Hawkeyes play good defense.
But the only time defense-dominated ball captures the public’s fancy is when it leads to lots of wins.
Nothing makes Penn State’s 38-33 win at Illinois last Wednesday satisfying. Had that score been posted in a Big East or ACC gym, America would have howled in disgust. But since it occurred in Big Ten play, it’s more amusing than shocking.
Ultimately, though, can Big Ten teams cut through the NCAA tournament? Doyle says yes, and he has history on his side.
Since Michigan State was the last Big Ten team to win it all, in 2000, five more conference teams have been to the Final Four. Illinois and MSU went in the same year, 2005.
In those same eight seasons only the ACC (seven) and Big 12 (six) had as many Final Four representatives.
“I know this is hard to believe,” Doyle said, “but I think the Big Ten is poised to have a nice NCAA tourney.
“Look at the non-conference season. Purdue lost to Oklahoma in overtime, Oklahoma is No. 2 in the country, and Purdue gave that game away. I think Oklahoma shot 50 free throws (46, actually) and Purdue had five.
“Illinois beat the crap out of Missouri (75-59), for lack of a better word, in St. Louis.
“Nationally, the league doesn’t have the sexy rankings or five teams in the Top 25. But it has the strengths-of-schedules, the RPIs that the tournament committee looks at.”
None of which changes the facts the ACC and Big 12 and Big East tournaments will be more enjoyable to watch than the Big Ten tourney.
Nor does it change the fact Michigan-Iowa isn’t likely to be as entertaining as today’s Syracuse-Villanova or Wake Forest-Duke games.
But Doyle says better days are coming for the Hawkeyes. He calls himself a big fan of Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter, and likes Lickliter’s nucleus of young players.
“Jeff Peterson’s improved his game,” said Doyle. “If he and (Cyrus) Tate are healthy, and if (Anthony) Tucker was there, they’d have seven or eight wins in the conference.
“Jake Kelly and (Matt) Gatens, I really like them. Gatens is going to be one of those guys who are rock-solid, and Peterson will be a rock-solid point guard.”
But we live in the present, and Doyle doesn’t pretend the Hawkeyes will wow their Big Ten Network audience with offensive artistry today.
With the confirmation Wednesday that Illinois will close its season with a game at Cincinnati, all the Big Ten football schedules are set for 2009.
First off, while Illini fans sound irritated that their team will play Fresno State at home and Cincinnati on the road — both capable squads – after the Big Ten season is over, at least they’re real opponents.
Good for the Illini. It may mean another 5-7 season or, worse, a trip to the Motor City Bowl at 6-6. But it at least shows some willingness to play competition.
Either that, or Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther failed miserably at finding a patsy to squeeze into his schedule. I hope it’s that deal about wanting to play someone.
If only every Big Ten AD and coach had the same attitude. Hey, the Big Ten isn’t winning BCS titles anyhow and flops miserably every time it sends Ohio State to slaughter in the championship game. So why not make the regular-season more meaningful with actual ballgames?
Only 14 of the 44 nonconference games in ’09 are against BCS conference teams or Notre Dame. That’s ridiculous.
Are you the Big Ten or just the Ten? Actually, you’re the Eleven, but that horse has been beaten to death.
Only three league teams — Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota — are playing two BCS conference teams among their four non-league games. Wisconsin isn’t playing any.
Before noting the cupcakes, let’s give some kudos to the proud and the few who are at least playing interesting games.
Ohio State gets the return date on its home-and-home series with USC.
Purdue heads to Oregon after hosting the Ducks last fall.
Indiana filled out its schedule by taking a game at Virginia, thus becoming the only Big Ten team to play two of its nonconference games on the road.
Cal is playing at Minnesota and Arizona is at Iowa, so those are 2008 bowl teams from the Pac-10 coming into Big Ten lairs.
But by and large, Big Ten non-league slates are another big pile of bleccccch.
Nine games are against FCS (I-AA) opposition. Purdue and Ohio State are the only Big Ten teams not devouring FCS prey. A few are among the cream of the FCS crop, like Northern Iowa and Wofford. But …
Delaware State (5-6 last year) at Michigan?
Towson (3-9) at Northwestern?
Eastern Illinois (5-7) at Penn State?
Penn State is playing all four of its nonconference games at home, against Akron, Syracuse, Temple and mighty Eastern Illinois. That’s absurd. Are you a football power or not? If you are, act like one and schedule somebody.
Playing two Mid-American Conference teams, an FCS squad and Syracuse, the Least of the Big East, is great for wins. It won’t work too well in those BCS computers, though.
Ranking the non-league schedules by toughness is difficult, because most are lousy. But here goes:
1. Illinois: Vs. Missouri in St. Louis, Illinois State, Fresno State, at Cincinnati (The series with Mizzou is a good one, and Cincinnati is fresh off an Orange Bowl appearance.)
2. Minnesota: at Syracuse, Air Force, California, South Dakota State (Air Force and Cal went to bowls, Syracuse is on the road, and S.D. State is one of the better FCS teams a Big Ten team is playing.)
3. Purdue: Toledo, at Oregon, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame. (Toledo was lousy in ’08, but the other three went to bowls and Oregon won 10 games.)
4. Wisconsin: Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford, at Hawaii (The three FBS teams went to bowls, and Wofford won nine games and played South Carolina to a 10-point game.)
5. Ohio State: Navy, USC, vs. Toledo in Cleveland, New Mexico State (The USC game goes a long way here, obviously.)
6. Michigan State: Montana State, Central Michigan, at Notre Dame, Western Michigan. (Doesn’t look like much, but the three FBS teams went to bowls, the two MAC teams are in-state clubs that will be motivated, going to South Bend is no picnic, and Montana State was 7-5)
7. Iowa: Northern Iowa, at Iowa State, Arizona, Arkansas State. (UNI’s a terrific FCS team, and Arizona’s legit. If Iowa State were just a little stronger …)
Now it gets bad.
8. Indiana: Eastern Kentucky, Western Michigan, at Akron, at Virginia. (Western Michigan is a good program. Playing on the road twice should count for something, though all it really means is Indiana is a Big Ten football program without much clout.)
9. Michigan: Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State. (Four home games. Not a Top 25 team in the bunch. This isn’t the Michigan scheduling we’ve known for the last half-century. Bo Schembechler would never have scheduled Delaware State.)
10. Northwestern: Miami (Ohio), Towson, at Syracuse, Eastern Michigan. (Not a good opponent in the foursome. Only playing Syracuse on the road keeps the ‘Cats from being ranked below … )
11. Penn State: Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois. (What, Slippery Rock, Swarthmore, Susquehanna, and Scranton/Dundler-Miffin weren’t available?)
(AP photo of Iowa’s Jake Kelly by Charlie Neibergall)
IOWA CITY — With his head bandaged like that of a fife player marching across a battlefield, Jake Kelly knifed for a lay-in with four seconds left in his team’s basketball game Saturday.
With the tape circling his head, the Iowa sophomore guard looked like the proper symbol of the Hawkeyes, a ragtag unit with their best big man (Cyrus Tate) and their point guard (Jeff Peterson) both injured and unavailable for duty.
Kelly’s score was also symbolic of Iowa’s day before a lively crowd of 14,665 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The basket pared No. 20 Purdue’s lead to two points, but wasn’t quite enough.
The Boilermakers left with a 49-45 win in a game as aesthetically ugly as its score, but one that certainly wasn’t lacking for ferocity.
It was a defensive tour de force for both squads, one that kept the fans energized despite Iowa’s baskets being few, and so hard to come by.
Kelly typified his team’s effort, not its result. He had to leave the court late in the game when he and Purdue’s Chris Kramer inadvertently butted heads. Iowa’s cut man, John Streif, worked on Kelly to clot the bleeding above his left eye that would later require three stitches.
The player returned and scored the last of his 12 points in the second-half and game-high 19 overall. But again, it wasn’t quite enough. Which is the story of Iowa’s 3-10 Big Ten season.
“If,” Kelly said, “no one would have gotten hurt all year — that’s pretty outrageous to say, but I think it would have been a totally different season.”
You play with what you’ve got. Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter stitched together a 7-player rotation Saturday, got a very productive season-high 32 minutes of 6-foot-7 forward Jarryd Cole in the middle, and had non-point guard Kelly share time at that spot with Jermain Davis in Peterson’s absence.
Throw in a fife and a couple of drums, and you had the portrait of Iowa’s squad.
But Kelly and Cole combined for 32 of Iowa’s 45 points in an offense that wasn’t really an offense. That isn’t intended as an insult, just a reflection about things not being entirely structured when Kelly was at the point.
“I didn’t know any of the plays,” Kelly said, “so we just ran high ball-screen all game.
“We weren’t running like quote-unquote sets, but we knew what we were doing. It wasn’t like we were just going out there and hooping. I don’t think it was like schoolyard ball. Just maybe a little organized than we’re used to playing.”
No, the ball definitely wasn’t the schoolyard variety. You don’t see defense like that from two teams in any driveway or playground, let alone the vast majority of most Division I gyms.
Purdue had to match Iowa’s defense with excellent lockdown of its own to get out of town with its 19th win.
But Kelly kept the Hawkeyes’ fire stoked, even putting them ahead with 6:54 left on one of his several cuts to the basket before he got cut himself.
Forty-five minutes after the game, Kelly had gauze on his sliced eyebrow that looked as gruesome as the game itself. But he didn’t sound like a wounded warrior.
“We had a packed house today,” he said. “We had so many fans supporting us. We’re not going to just give up and not put on a show for the fans. We’re going to work hard every days and we’re going to earn our scholarships.”
Purdue Coach Matt Painter, after collecting his 100th career win, called Kelly “the best player on the court.”
However, the sophomore player and Iowa’s head coach still ended up with their 23rd Big Ten loss in 31 games.
Last year, Lickliter needed more players. A lot of them. This year, he needs more players. A few, anyway. Especially those with size and those who can, as the expression goes, can create their own shots.
The “playing hard” thing and the “buying into the system” deal, those don’t seem to be issues. The Hawkeyes had all sorts of reasons to phone in this game, and instead played harder. Which should have come as no surprise to regular observers of the squad.
The losing wears on everyone, from the head coach to the fan in Row 35. But if nothing else, the right attitude seems to be in place for future success if the talent becomes adequate enough to accompany it.
Kelly certainly seems like a primary piece of the plan for the next two years, if he can stay in one piece. He spent his Saturday night icing the cut eye and a sore hip.
“It’s a hip pointer,” he said. “I fall on it. I’m pretty skinny, so I don’t have much meat there.”
That’s his team, too. Too thin.
Round up some beef on the recruiting trail, Coach Lick. The fans are getting hungry, and hungry people eventually get impatient.