August is when Iowa Football fever should really start to kick in, but with all the hype surrounding basketball national champion Duke in recent Internet articles, I decided to put my list together of what games on the 2001-02 Hawkeye Basketball schedule really could be fun to watch. The order the teams are listed below does not reflect the importance of the games, but rather the intrigue, rivalry, or excitement factors.
1. Missouri - The preseason game in Iowa City was one of my favorite games of the season last year, and both sides return lots of firepower. Last season, Clarence Gilbert and Kareem Rush put on a show while Luke Recker showed lots of heart and Reggie Evans and his 18 rebounds made the difference in the Iowa win. Even though Iowa will be playing at Missouri without Dean Oliver, the Hawks could have the advantage again this year if their young big men have improved faster than Missouri's young big guys. Much like other key match-ups, the Hawks are going to be very tough if they get healthy and have solid point guard play. The home team has won every game in recent years in this very underrated border series.
2. Illinois - Last season, the Illini had such superior depth that they could overcome almost any amount of injuries and foul problems. This season, Cory Bradford and Robert Archibald are going to have to stay healthy and improve if the team is going to play at the level that the 2000-01 squad played at. Unlike the Iowa-Missouri match-up, the Illinois games have been very ugly the last few years as the Illini have used their physical strength and depth to physically punish and foul most of their opponents into oblivion. Losing a very underrated Sergio McClain and inconsistent Marcus Griffin will hurt Illinois, but PG Frank Williams is going to present match-up problems to almost any team he faces. If Iowa can somewhat check Williams while Lucas Johnson and Archibald continue to hack and tackle, even though the Illini has less depth, the Hawks should at least split the two games again this year.
3. Duke - Maybe it is because the game has been getting too much hype, but I have been looking forward to the traditional Midwest match-ups a little more than this game. Carlos Boozer and Reggie Evans could be a very fun match-up, but the big question is whether Iowa can guard the Duke backcourt of Jason Williams and Chris Duhon. Much like the Missouri game, this game also has the makings of being a shootout since I think both teams will have issues matching up on defense. Besides Evans vs. Boozer, the game might come down to which team has other inside guys that can step up. In a national game such as this, I am pretty sure we will see the "A" games of Recker, Glen Worley, and Brody Boyd.
4. Michigan State - Like almost everyone else, Iowa has taken it on the chin by MSU the last few years. The loss in East Lansing last season might have been one of the lowest points of an up-and-down 23-12 season. Unlike the last two years, Iowa is the team that returns proven talent while the Spartans are going to rely on hyped recruits and other young players in order to stay on top of the Big Ten. Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the country, but it is hard for anyone to replace what MSU has lost the last two years. I still think Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson made huge mistakes by leaving early to go pro. This seems like a good match-up right now on paper, but the Spartans could be tough by the time January rolls around.
5. Minnesota - This cheating program deserves to be down for a while, but Dan Monson and his staff have done a nice job getting the team back to where they could be a NCAA tourney team this season. Dusty Rychart is fun to watch, and Rick Rickert and Jerry Holman will help improve a Gopher frontline that was dominated by Reggie Evans last year. Rickert is being billed as the best Gopher freshman ever in some circles, but like most freshmen that are big men, there is no way he is going to live up to the Kevin McHale-like hype that surrounds him. While Evans dominated in both games, Recker and the offense just rolled over the Gophers up in Williams Arena last season in one of my favorite moments in recent years at the Barn. Gopher fans seldom show respect for Iowa, and most think that Minnesota recruits will help turn the tide in favor of the U of M this year. However, not only was Iowa MUCH better than the Gophers last year, but they were seldom near being healthy. What's is even better for Hawk fans is that UI frontline might improve more than the U of M because Reiner, Sonderleiter, and Scott are all sophomores. By the way, isn't it about time that BigTen.org updated the records of the cheating gophers with forfeits to reflect the five years of widespread cheating?
6. Indiana - This series is going to be as hyped as any as long as Coach Alford resides in Iowa City, but I thought this was going to be a great match-up until Kirk Haston opted for pro ball. Indiana will still be better than teams like Minnesota and perhaps Michigan State, but their lineup on paper took a big hit with the loss of Haston. I felt the three most important players to their teams in the Big Ten last year were Haston, Recker, and Frank Williams, and the latter two return. Indiana will still be loaded with Jared Jeffries, Tom Coverdale, and company, but they will have to be a better perimeter team to overcome the loss of Haston.
7. Iowa State - The games with Indiana and Iowa State have more to do with rivalry and circumstance than the teams on the court. Both are good squads, and ISU has been very good over the last couple of years. However, until Iowa State starts playing any road games (neutral games are not the same thing) in the preseason outside of the state of Iowa, they will continue to lose credibility in my book. As good as they have been the last two years, they deserve to be shafted in the strength of schedule part of the NCAA selection process, and they were two years ago. Although he has not scheduled like a top-flight coach, Larry Eustachy has done a great job in putting good defensive teams together. Similar to MSU, the Cyclones will be much better than they look on paper right now, but this game cannot mean as much to me as it does Cyclone fans since I have other good preseason games to look forward to.
8. Michigan - Much like MSU and ISU, Michigan has some questions to answer, but that is where the comparisons end. Brian Ellerbe was the worst coach in the Big Ten over the last few seasons, yet the Wolverines were able to sweep Iowa last year. The start the Hawks had in each of those games was beyond abysmal, and Coach Alford should have no trouble getting the team ready for UM this year. Tommy Amaker takes over the program that has plenty of talent to go with a losing attitude in recent years. Amaker is an interesting choice in the sense that while he seems to be a good coach and great recruiter, his talented Pirate squad just quit playing hard or together last year at Seton Hall. Things like that have to be blamed on players and their lack of maturity, but coaches make a lot of money to recruit mature players or to recruit immature talent that the coach can turn into winners. Amaker did not get that done last year, and despite lots of talent and having a couple of standup leaders on the Wolverine team, he has to show that he can get everyone on the same page this year.
Teams to start playing semi-regularly, if possible: Arizona, Gonzaga, Kansas, Stanford, Tulsa, and UCLA.
Wouldn't it be great to get another big regional match-up in a home-and-home series outside of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge? Arizona comes to mind first because of Lute and his old ties to the program. I think enough years have gone by that the hostility towards him would be minuscule. Kansas was a great team to play, but they decided to let the contract run out after losing to the Hawks in 1998-99, and 1999-2000. Stanford and UCLA would be fun because they are big name Western programs like Arizona.
It is doubtful that Iowa would ever do a home-and-home with Gonzaga or Tulsa, but I would love to find a way to play these teams on a regular basis. They, along with Detroit, are teams that big schools are avoiding, but playing them helps RPI ratings tremendously. Iowa should be commended for adding these teams to the Gazette Shootout (or whatever it is called this year), and hopefully these teams and other good programs will continue to play in Iowa City.