Four years, seven games, four points and two big transfers are all that separates what has become arguably the Big Ten's hottest basketball rivalry, a rivalry that enters its fifth season Tuesday night when the Iowa Hawkeyes visit Wisconsin's Kohl Center.
Before Fran McCaffery's arrival at Iowa, the Hawkeyes and Badgers treated each other with the same grudging respect that they do in football, a respect built from similar traditions, personalities and -- at least in the time of Todd Lickliter -- styles. While it can't be said that a game against Wisconsin was treated as any other by the Iowa program and fanbase -- the Badgers are simply too good year-in and year-out for that -- it also didn't draw the open hostility of, say, Illinois or Iowa State. Wisconsin was to be admired, not loathed.
How did we get from there to here, where Iowa expects nothing less than open hostility from not just Badger fans but Bo Ryan and his players? Where the programs publicly spar over proper etiquette on the court and in the living rooms of recruits? Where we're fairly certain Fran McCaffery could throw something at Bo Ryan tonight?
McCaffery is hired as Iowa's head coach in March 2010, replacing Lickliter and scrapping Iowa's slow-down system once and for all. His first order of business: Holding Lickliter's incoming recruiting class together. He keeps Roy Devyn Marble and Zach McCabe on the reservation, but loses forward Cody Larson to Florida. The only player left is shooting guard Ben Brust, who listened to Iowa but eventually sought a transfer to Wisconsin. The Big Ten prohibited any such intraconference moves, so Brust requested an exception from the league. Iowa consented, and wrote a recommendation to the Big Ten on Brust's behalf to pave the way. Bo Ryan later called it, "An individual family making a decision, and it was in their hands."
Brust's move led to bigger changes in the Big Ten, however. By October 2010, the league had changed its rule to allow any player who wanted to transfer to another Big Ten school an immediate scholarship upon arrival, granted the player had a full release from his original school.
Later that summer, top Iowa target and Cedar Rapids recruit Jarrod Uthoff announced his commitment to Wisconsin. Bo Ryan has not landed a recruit from the state of Iowa since.
Brust would go on to average 11 points in six games against the Hawkeyes.
McCaffery's first team is not good, finishing 11-19 overall and just 4-14 in the Big Ten. But the Hawkeyes were gradually more competitive, ending the regular season with a home victory over tournament-bound Purdue. The turning point: An overtime loss to Wisconsin called "an ugly and draining slugfest" by the ESPN recapper. The Hawkeyes surprisingly led 23-18 at the half and held a six-point lead with 7:23 to play. The Badgers quickly evened things and -- in traditional Iowa-Wisconsin fashion -- combined for one field goal and two free throws in the game's final four minutes. A three-pointer by Tim Jarmusz three minutes into overtime was the dagger.
Iowa was hardly going gangbusters when McCaffery made his first visit to the Kohl Center on New Years Eve 2011. The Hawkeyes had just finished a non-conference schedule with blowout losses to Creighton and Clemson, in-state defeats at the hands of Northern Iowa and Iowa State (the former a game in which McCaffery got tossed), and an embarassing home loss to Campbell. Purdue beat Iowa at home to open what looked like another disappointing Big Ten season.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, was 12-2 and ranked No. 11, and with the lowly Hawkeyes coming to town, it looked like a happy New Year was on its way. And then Iowa forced Wisconsin into its second-most high-tempo game of the season (67 possessions, a breakneck speed for Ryan's teams) and got the Badgers to shoot just 2/25 from behind the three-point arc, and the Hawkeyes ran out with a 72-65 win. Freshman Aaron White scored 18 and, in true Aaron White fashion, got 16 of those in the second half. The rest of the game was upside down: Iowa's bench actually outscored its starters, Matt Gatens led the team in rebounding, and Iowa dominated the second half. Needless to say, we played some Junior Senior.
Two months later, the Badgers made the return trip and ran into the Buzzsaw That Was Senior-Year Matt Gatens. The Iowa guard, who had committed to Steve Alford, looked miserable under Todd Lickliter, and finally came to life with McCaffery, posted 33 points and went 7/9 from behind the arc in a 67-66 Iowa win. Once again, Iowa pushed the Badgers beyond their usual sloth-like tempo, and free student tickets filled the stands with raving lunatics. Iowa forced 12 Badger turnovers and gave them just three free throw attempts. It was a perfect game, and the series sweep a shot across the bow at Ryan.
Jarrod Uthoff had spent the year on the bench at Wisconsin, redshirting at the behest of Bo Ryan and watching his former hometown team beat his current squad twice. He opted to transfer at the end of the season, and the rivalry truly began in earnest.
Iowa showed obvious interest in Uthoff, given his local connections and 6'9 frame. McCaffery's interest probably jumped the gun, to be fair; Uthoff had not yet asked for his release when rumors began swirling in mid-April. By the time he had requested his release, Bo Ryan was incensed. Ryan initially refused to allow Uthoff a release to any Big Ten school, Iowa State or Marquette. When Virginia reached out, Ryan expanded his restrictions to include the entire ACC. Uthoff filed an appeal with the school, which was conveniently lost by a Wisconsin athletic department staffer. Bo Ryan went on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" to defend his decision and came out looking like a horse's ass. Wisconsin eventually lifted all restrictions except those for Big Ten teams, which appeared reasonable. However, given Iowa's 2010 intervention to get Ben Brust immediate eligibility, the continued restrictions were treated by Iowa fans as an affront.
Uthoff chose Iowa regardless, opting to sit a season and pay his way through one year of school over going anywhere else. Ryan clearly thought there was tampering by Iowa's coaching staff, and he wasn't alone. The saga crystallized the enmity on both sides and brought the rivalry to a whole new level.
With the Uthoff story still fresh in fans' minds, Wisconsin made its return to Carver Hawkeye Arena. It could not have picked a worse time. The Hawkeyes were remembering Chris Street, who had died in an auto accident 20 years before, and CHA was both filled to capacity and ready for battle. Iowa jumped out to a 30-10 lead on a wave of emotion unseen in years from an Iowa basketball team. The athletic department, getting the 'gameday atmosphere' perfect for once, paraded out Chris Street Award winners during halftime to keep the crowd humming. During a timeout, Iowa played trivia and added some fuel to the fire.
Wisconsin is such a perfect foil for Iowa: Stark contrast in styles, constant battles on the recruiting trail, and Bo Ryan as loathsome face of the entire operation. Ben Brust, who committed to Iowa when Todd Lickliter was coach and changed his commitment to Wisconsin after Lickliter's termination, was booed lustily every time he touched the ball. Same went for Zach Bohannon, a Cedar Rapids native and son of a former Hawkeye, though on a lesser scale. And the Uthoff trolling just added fuel to an already-raging fire in CHA. When Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz began complaining to officials about interior contact -- after 15 years of Badger basketball predicated on the idea that the refs can't call a foul on every possession -- the roof almost came off the place. Just a wonderful game to watch live.
Wisconsin stormed back in the second half, but fell four points short, and suddenly McCaffery was 3-1 overall against the Badgers.
With seven minutes left in the return trip to the Kohl Center, it looked like Iowa, which desperately needed a signature road win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, was going to extend its winning streak over the Badgers to four. Iowa was up nine with every bit of momentum on its side. The Badgers quickly reversed, and suddenly it was a one-possession game in the final minute.
And then it happened: A single shot that flipped the entire rivalry on its ear.
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.
Iowa eventually fell 74-70 in double overtime, with Brust leading the Badgers' attack with 18 points. Iowa missed the NCAA Tournament, and has not beaten Wisconsin since.
McCaffery finally let the situation get the better of him in Iowa's trip to Madison last season. The Hawkeyes jumped out to their customary 11-point halftime lead, but minutes after a jumper by Ben Brust cut that lead to two points and turned momentum fairly clearly in Wisconsin's favor, Iowa's tempermental head coach lost it. He was called for a technical foul in the middle of a tirade following a whistle against Gabe Olaseni, a technical he admitted to inviting. He then bumped a second official, drawing a second foul. McCaffery was ejected, Brust made four free throws that gave the Badgers the lead, and Iowa never caught up.
The key to that game, aside from McCaffery's ejection, was tempo. Where Iowa had pushed Wisconsin out of its comfort zone with high offensive tempo brought on by pressure defense in its previous wins, the Badgers now understood how to play a 70-possession game without the wheels falling off. Iowa's strategy of simply forcing the Badgers into a shootout was no longer effective, and McCaffery wasn't there to implement Plan B.
After the game, Aaron White famously said, "We're tired of losing to teams we are better than." Nobody was sure he was actually correct about the premise, but the moxie was impressive.
It was the second consecutive second-half collapse against Wisconsin by Iowa, which started 2/19 from the field in the second half. And Iowa found a new way to blow it in its home game against the Badgers, the first played during McCaffery's regime where both teams were ranked: Come back from a double-digit deficit, then lose the lead. Iowa fell behind 40-31 at the half, but took the lead on a Josh Oglesby jump shot with a minute to play. From there, it was the Frank Kaminsky Show: He scored the go-ahead basket, then stripped Roy Devyn Marble and made two free throws to effectively seal the win.
The win catapulted Wisconsin into the NCAA Tournament with ease. The loss sent Iowa into a death spiral from which it never truly recovered. The Hawkeyes lost six of their next seven games, including an NCAA play-in game against Tennessee, and ended the season with a thud.
Iowa and Wisconsin again play twice this year, with Wisconsin currently holding a 4-3 edge in the McCaffery-Ryan series. Wisconsin holds a four-point margin over the Hawkeyes over the course of those seven games, outscoring Iowa 487-483. And both teams enter this season's first meeting with one conference loss, though Wisconsin's national ranking significantly outpaces Iowa's. And now they play twice in twelve days. Brust is graduated. Uthoff is still at Iowa, and will get a hostile-at-best reception from the Kohl Center crowd Tuesday night. It's as even and as hostile as any rivalry in the conference and, by virtue, the nation. And it renews tonight.