Iowa basketball is just under a month away from tipping off, which means it's time to start turning more of our attention to the hoopyballers and their quest to one-up last year's performance, a promising effort that came up short in February and March. The good news is that they appear to have a lot of eye-catching matchups on paper; the bad news is that they also appear to have a lot of very challenging games on paper. The Big Ten is loaded for bear once again, which means hitting 20 wins will again take some doing. Let's take a look at ten of the most intriguing, exciting, and can't-miss games of the Iowa season this year.
Games listed in chronological order.
1) Iowa vs. Texas (Thursday, November 20, 2014; 6 PM CT; ESPN2)
Iowa's first big test of the year comes a month from today, when they face preseason #10 Texas in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden. Texas returns basically everyone of consequence from last year's team (which went 24-11) and adds a very good freshman class, led by the #2 recruit in the country, Myles Turner. Texas may be as talented as any team Iowa will see all year and while early season form doesn't necessarily predict much (as Iowa fans know all too well), this game could be a great chance to get an early read on this Iowa squad. They seem very motivated to erase the bad taste of the collapse down the stretch last year and this will be their first chance to really turn some heads.
2) Iowa at North Carolina (Wednesday, December 3, 2014; 6:30 PM CT; ESPN)
For the first time in a very, very long time, Iowa also gets a marquee opponent in the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge -- it doesn't get much more marquee (or blue blood) in the ACC than North Carolina. North Carolina is the preseason #6 team in the country and they return plenty of talent from a season ago as well (most notably Iowa native Marcus Paige), so this will again be another good measuring point for Iowa. The game is in Chapel Hill, to boot, so we'll get to see how this Iowa team handles a fierce road environment, too.
3) Iowa State at Iowa (Friday, December 12, 2014; 7 PM CT; BTN)
This one goes without saying, right? In a season full of painful close losses, this one might have been the most painful -- there certainly weren't many losses that matched the brain-melting circumstances of the final 1:30 of this game. But the nice thing about Iowa-Iowa State being an annual series is that Iowa gets an immediate chance at payback -- and they can do so in front of their home fans, too. Iowa State is another preseason top 25 team (#14, to be precise), so insert the standard language about this being a good early season test and so forth... but really this is about rivalry. And revenge. This game would make the list even if Iowa State was ranked 114th.
4) Iowa at Ohio State (Tuesday, December 30, 2014; 12 PM CT; ESPN2)
Iowa's Big Ten season gets underway on the road (in a game semi-inexplicably taking place at noon the day before New Year's Eve; how many days off do the Big Ten/ESPN think people get around New Years?) and stop me if you've heard this before... but it's against another preseason top 25 team! Ohio State checks in at #20 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll. The Buckeyes (finally) lose Aaron Craft and last year's two returning scorers (LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, Jr.), but the Buckeyes won't be lacking for talent -- their freshman class includes three ESPN 100 players (highlighted by G D'Angelo Russell), as well as talented Temple transfer Anthony Lee. Ohio State has been one of Iowa's most difficult foes for the last decade; last year's win in Columbus was the first win over the Buckeyes in quite a long time. Ohio State figures to be a Big Ten title contender again this year, so Iowa will be entering league play by being thrown into the deep end. (NOTE: Iowa plays OSU again Saturday, 1/17/15; 1 PM CT; ESPN.)
5) Iowa vs. Nebraska (Monday, January 5, 2015; 8 PM CT; BTN)
Iowa plays their Big Ten home opener almost a week later with a game against one of last year's biggest league surprises -- and one of this year's expected league darlings, Nebraska. Last year's success coupled with this year's potential has Nebrasketball ranked #21 in the preseason and picked to finish in the top 4-5 of the league once again. That hype is based on the Huskers returning a lot of key players, including Shavon Shields, Taj Webster, and potential Big Ten Player of the Year Trevon Petteway, but hype or not, Nebrasketball looks like a very dangerous team. NOTE: Iowa plays Nebraska again Sunday, 2/22/15; TBA; CBS or BTN.)
6) Iowa vs. Michigan State (Thursday, January 8, 2015; 6 PM CT; ESPN or ESPN2)
This Spartan team doesn't appear quite as loaded as last year's killer squad -- the key returning players are Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine -- but still: it's Sparty. This game always matters. Michigan State has been one of the bellwether programs of the Big Ten for Tom Izzo's entire tenure, so any game with them is always going to have some extra juice. And, yeah, there's also the revenge factor (MSU bested Iowa, 71-69, in OT last year in another frustrating late loss) and the fact that Sparty is another preseason top 25 squad (#18), but this game is here because it's Sparty and it's the only time Iowa plays them all season (at least until a potential Big Ten Tournament rematch).
7) Iowa at Minnesota (Tuesday, January 13, 2015; 8 PM CT; BTN)
In diagnosing Iowa's breakdown last season, fingers have been pointed at several games as Iowa's downfall (the home loss to Wisconsin, the away loss to Wisconsin, the rescheduled Indiana game, the early season hiccups against Villanova and Iowa State), but the away loss to Minnesota was the game that most clearly established the template for Iowa's season-ending collapse: let the other team shoot the goddamn lights out. Minnesota set the nets on fire that night (61.2%, including 69.2% in the first half), especially from deep (8/11 in the first half), and ended up scoring 95 points. Iowa gave up 93 in the next game and 86 points two games later; Minnesota's 95-point outburst was sadly not an aberration. (Even lower-scoring losses to the likes of Illinois and Northwestern also involved serious sharpshooting from the opposition; those games just featured slower tempos.) So yeah: that loss to Minnesota left a seriously bad taste -- it would be very satisfying to get a little revenge up there this year. (NOTE: Iowa plays Minnesota again Thursday, 2/12/15; 6 PM CT; BTN.)
8) Iowa at Wisconsin (Tuesday, January 20, 2015; 8 PM CT; ESPN)
Badgers, Badgers, Badgers... we meet again. The question of "who's Iowa's biggest rival?" is always difficult to answer and likely to receive 3-4 different answers depending on which fans you ask, but in hoops, Wisconsin is rapidly establishing themselves as Iowa's biggest nemesis. The overall series is absurdly close and since Fran arrived the games have almost always been very close, very memorable, and loaded with relevance. That's pretty good fodder for a rivalry. Iowa's losses to Wisconsin last year were both very memorable (the loss at Madison was notable for Fran coming unglued in the second half, while the loss in Iowa City was notable for being another painful late collapse); this game represents Iowa's first crack at the Badgers since those losses. There's much more than revenge going on in this game, though: the Badgers are the consensus Big Ten title favorites, a preseason top-5 pick (#4), and a potential national title contender. Hell, they might even be ranked #1 by the time Iowa rolls into town for this game. An Iowa win here could be seismic. (NOTE: Iowa plays Wisconsin again Saturday, 1/31/15; 11 AM CT; ESPN or ESPN2.)
9) Iowa vs. Maryland (Sunday, February 8, 2015; 2:15 PM CT; BTN)
The Big Ten is welcoming two new members to its fold this season, but frankly only one of them is very intriguing in terms of hoops (sorry, Rutgers). As strange as it's been to get adjusted to the idea of Maryland football in the Big Ten, getting accustomed to the notion of Maryland basketball in the Big Ten might take even longer. They were a signature ACC program, even if they'd gone through some tough seasons in recent years. I have no idea what to expect out of this Terrapin team because the level of turnover in their squad is stupefying, but for novelty reasons alone, this game had to make the list. Iowa versus Maryland. In a Big Ten conference game. What a world.
10) Iowa at Indiana (Tuesday, March 3, 2015; 6 PM CT; ESPN)
This game doesn't exactly have the juice that it did when Bobby Knight was there (or when [REDCATED] was here), but it's still Iowa versus Indiana, which means something. It's also a chance for Iowa to exorcise a few more demons from last year; last season's trip to Bloomington was initially postponed by falling debris, but the actual game against Indiana in Bloomington was marred by falling shots. Lots and lots of falling shots. This game is a return to the scene of that crime, as well as Iowa's only clash with Indiana (aside from the Big Ten Tournament). It's also a Super Tuesday match-up on ESPN and while that distinction doesn't mean as much as it did 10 or 15 years ago, it's still a nice national showcase.
What games are you looking forward to the most? What games did we omit? (I won't lie: it was tough to leave off Iowa-Michigan.) Let us know in the comments.