IOWA CITY — At first blush Iowa’s opening Big Ten slate seemed daunting, if not impossible.
Six of Iowa’s first seven league opponents competed in the NCAA Tournament last year. The other foe, Minnesota, was a program that had beaten Iowa (11-9, 3-4 Big Ten) six straight. Few people gave Iowa a chance to win more than one game in that stretch after a disappointing 8-5 non-conference campaign.
Nebraska (10-9, 2-6 Big Ten) entered its inaugural Big Ten campaign with a similar schedule, facing ranked or formerly ranked opponents in seven of eight games. Now both teams tackle the exhale portion of their Big Ten schedule starting with each other Thursday.
Iowa faces just one ranked opponent in its next six games. Likewise, Nebraska has one ranked foe in its next seven games. But, as expected, the coaches won’t allow their players to drift into arrogance, especially when preparing for one another.
“I don’t think these guys are going to look at Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan and those teams as being less good,” Nebraska Coach Doc Sadler said. “We’ve got ourselves 2-6. … I don’t think there’s going to be any overconfidence.”
“I think Nebraska has our full attention,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think they’ve got everybody’s full attention.”
Both teams have knocked off ranked Big Ten opponents this year, and Nebraska’s upset over Indiana makes the Cornhuskers more dangerous, Iowa sophomore Melsahn Basabe said.
“These teams are almost similar to us because they really, really have something to prove and they’re trying to attack somebody every night,” Basabe said. “So these games can be more dangerous than other games because they see themselves as ‘Oh yeah, we definitely can get these guys.’ That’s the attitude to have. Not that lack of respect for us, but if you look at the standings, we’re not ranked. So they’re looking at us like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got to win this game.’
“That’s how it is. This game is even more dangerous because we’re both in a dogfight.”
The schools will meet for the first time since 1976 and will play twice this season. Both recently have fought for recruits along their Missouri River border, and will continue to do so. Iowa sophomore Zach McCabe, a Sioux City Heelan graduate, went to Nebraska’s elite camp in high school. For him the border battle will add spice to the series.
“All my friends were Nebraska fans,” McCabe said. “It’s fun knowing they know are cheering against you a little bit, but they’re also cheering for you. I’m pretty excited.”
The game could have postseason ramifications for Iowa. Another loss would send the Hawkeyes to 3-5 in league play, which would make qualifying for either the NCAA or NIT tournaments difficult. A win would move Iowa to 4-4 in league play with only three games left against ranked opposition.
“It’s a big one for us,” Iowa senior Matt Gatens. “It’s one we need to get back to .500.”