After five legendary games in the last three seasons, Iowa and Wisconsin renew one of the conference's fiercest recent basketball rivalries Sunday at the Kohl Center. The rivalry began off the court, when Iowa commit Ben Brust, a Todd Lickliter recruit, reneged on his commitment when Lickliter was fired. Brust ended up at Wisconsin, but only after getting a waiver from a Big Ten rule prohibiting intra-conference transfers. Iowa helped Brust obtain the waiver, and any bad blood between the programs as a result of the transfer was limited to fans. Later that summer, Wisconsin beat Iowa for the signature of Cedar Rapids power forward Jarrod Uthoff.
On February 9, 2011, an Iowa team that was just 10-13 and 3-8 in Big Ten play shockingly took No. 13 Wisconsin to overtime when a Bryce Cartwright jumper bounced out. Wisconsin, which had been behind by five at the half before staging a late comeback, won by three. It was the only time the teams met that season, but it set the tone for the series.
On New Years' Eve, 2011, the Badgers and Hawkeyes again faced off, this time at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin was ranked No. 11 and had defeated the last 23 unranked opponents to come to Madison. Aaron White decided to use the occasion as his debutante's ball, dropping 16 points on the Badgers in the second half as Iowa coasted to a seven-point win:
"Any time you win on the road in this league, there's a celebration, there's an incredible sense of accomplishment," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after his team beat the Badgers for just the third time in the past 15 meetings. "(But) this is the 11th-ranked team in the country, on the road, with a fabulous winning percentage here. I think our players know and understand what they had to overcome to make this happen."
The win probability graph from that game is a thing of beauty, as Wisconsin, a 98% favorite to win when the game started, remained a heavy favorite until the game's final seven minutes. The return meeting in Iowa City two months later was more of the same: Iowa built an early lead and had enough to hold on for a one-point win on Matt Gatens bobblehead night. Gatens scored 33 of Iowa's 67 points, a career high, and put together one of the most electric performances by any Iowa player in a decade. The win catapulted Iowa into an improbable NIT appearance and set the stage for 2012-13.
The rivalry again moved off the court that offseason when Uthoff -- who had redshirted during his first season in Madison -- requested a scholarship release so that he could transfer. Iowa was immediately considered his likely destination, and given the precedent set by Brust's transfer two years earlier, should not have been controversial. But where Fran McCaffery and Iowa's administration helped Brust move to Wisconsin, Bo Ryan set up roadblocks to Uthoff's move to Iowa.
When Uthoff submitted a list of 16 potential schools, Wisconsin immediately denied him contact with any Big Ten school and four listed names in particular: Iowa, Iowa State, Indiana, and Marquette. Virginia's Tony Bennett asked for permission to talk to Uthoff. Ryan responded by restricting Uthoff not just from Virginia, but from the entire ACC. Uthoff appealed. Wisconsin denied it had received his appeal letter in time. While Wisconsin eventually lifted some of the restrictions after the letter magically appeared in the office of the administrator who had personally received it from Uthoff, Iowa remained prohibited. Uthoff eventually walked on at Iowa and sat out a second year due to the transfer. Ryan claimed it was unfair:
By the time it was done, Uthoff was a Hawkeye and Ryan was the top villain for Iowa basketball fans.
The atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye for last season's first Iowa-Wisconsin game could not have been more charged. The detestable Ryan, the turncoat Brust, and the now-hated Badgers were coming to Iowa City on the 20th anniversary of Chris Street's death to face the first Iowa team with a legitimate shot at the NCAA tournament in seven years. Iowa again built a massive halftime edge -- this time 16 points -- and held on for a four-point win despite yet another furious Badger comeback. While every Wisconsin starter was held to single digits, backup guard George Marshall and freshman forward Sam Dekker combined for 33 points. It was a sign of things to come for Dekker.
After an overtime loss at Purdue and three-point defeat at Minnesota, Iowa desperately needed a road win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive on February 6 in Madison. This time, Iowa did not build a big first-half lead. Rather, the teams played a hard-fought, back-and-forth, double-overtime thriller. Despite getting only two points from Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa nearly won in regulation. And then Traevon Jackson happened:
Aaron White got a three-point play with 45 seconds left, and Iowa was seemingly one defensive stop from escaping Madison with a second consecutive win. With 20 seconds to go, Traevon Jackson threw up a wounded duck from the right side, a shot that was as ugly as Mike Bruesewitz, a shot that falls harmlessly to the floor 98 times out of 100. But this shot defied the laws of physics. It hit the front of the rim with apparent topspin -- I say apparent because I still can't figure out how one would shoot a basketball with topspin -- bounced four feet into the air, and fell into the hoop. The hackneyed final possession and the two overtimes were a mere formality for Iowa, the most offensively-challenged team scoring 70 points per game in the country. The Hawkeyes might as well have given the Badgers the ball on the inbound pass and saved the energy for the trip home. The crowd was against Iowa. The Badgers were against Iowa. The history, both in this season and the long term, was against Iowa. The referees, which fell victim to the phenomenon of false equivalency that overtakes every ref at the Kohl Center and, in an attempt to exhibit fairness and not call Wisconsin for a foul on every defensive possession, let the Badgers hack away at anything within 10 feet of the rim, these refs were against Iowa. And now physics had turned its back on the Hawkeyes, as well.
It was an incredible game, the fifth incredible game in a row between the two teams. As we worried, it was the loss that likely kept Iowa out of the Big Dance.
Sunday, they meet again, Iowa as ascendant as they have ever been, Wisconsin undefeated and ranked No. 4 in the country, one former recruit for each who never played a minute in their former team's colors nevertheless feeling like they've changed camps to the outside world. Both of them are crucial to their current teams: Brust is leading the Badgers in minutes and scoring 12.4 points per game, while Uthoff is scoring 10.9 points per game off the bench and leading Iowa in scoring. Wisconsin fans are asking if Uthoff's return matters, as Iowa fans were doing when Ben Brust rolled into Carver Hawkeye Arena two years ago, and Uthoff will likely get the reception that Brust has received in his two trips to Iowa City.
One fact remains: In the three seasons that Fran McCaffery has coached at Iowa, Bo Ryan has never beaten him in regulation. Iowa has won or tied every game at the end of 40 minutes, and yet the Badgers are 2-3 over that period, because Iowa has not beaten them in overtime, and every one of these games approaches overtime over a long enough timeline. If the last three years are any indication, we're about to watch a classic, the sixth classic in a row.
FU Bo. Go Hawks.