Having come to Iowa City nearly four years ago, when the bleachers didn’t quite rattle and Fran McCaffery was still a little-known up-and-comer, Devyn Marble has the appreciation that comes with perspective.
Everything, now, seems different for Iowa. The home games, which are all sold out for the rest of the season; the national rankings, which now include the Hawkeyes; Marble’s Facebook page, which has gotten a little crowded.
Iowa basketball, it seems, is hitting a pinnacle it has been steadily building toward since Marble and McCaffery arrived on campus before the 2010-11 season. It is against that backdrop that the Gophers, fresh off an inspiring home victory over No. 11 Ohio State on Thursday, will find themselves when they take the court Sunday in front of another full-house Hawkeyes crowd.
Iowa, too, is coming off a victory over Ohio State — 84-74 last Sunday at Columbus, the first time the program has bested a top-five team (the Buckeyes were No. 3 at the time) in more than 10 years. Iowa (14-3) sits at No. 14 in the AP poll, and the three losses have each been by five points or fewer, all to opponents currently ranked in the top 10: Villanova, Wisconsin and Iowa State.
“It’s grown a lot,” said Marble, whose father, Roy Marble, is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer. “Fans are definitely coming out more and supporting us. Social media is different. Walking to class is different. Just everything. So people are definitely excited about how far we’ve come and are definitely proud of us. When we go out there, we play for more than just ourselves — we know that.”
On Sunday, the Gophers will hope to build on their recent success and push themselves a little closer to the same pinnacle Iowa is experiencing.
It won’t be easy. The Gophers have lost their past two visits to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Last season, they jumped out to a 21-5 lead before Iowa took over to win 72-51 in perhaps the ugliest loss of the season.
“It was very embarrassing,” center Elliott Eliason said. “We had a huge lead and we just quit and got our butts kicked. They’re playing great basketball right now. They’re a totally different team. They’re a great team right now. We have to have our guard up. We can’t get complacent with this win and go down and get our business handed to us.”
Iowa, which has won 19 consecutive games at home, has size at every position — a matchup aspect that seems a disadvantage for the Gophers. But Minnesota has played well when outsized in a couple of games this season — a loss against Syracuse in Hawaii and a victory over Florida State at home.
The Hawkeyes are extremely balanced, effective at getting out on the break with difference-makers in Marble and Aaron White inside.
And while Iowa has struggled to close out tight games in the past, the Hawkeyes found a way to get over that hurdle against Ohio State, rallying from a nine-point deficit in the second half to finish on a 22-9 run. Two games earlier, Iowa had fallen in a 75-71 heartbreaker at Wisconsin, a game in which the Badgers made four free throws awarded to them after McCaffery was issued two technical fouls and ejected for bumping a referee.
Redemption came a week later, with that coveted road victory at Ohio State.
“For us to go in there and play as well as we did I think says a lot about our progress,” McCaffery said. “We had a number of opportunities in that game to just kind of go away, and we just kept coming.”
A year ago, Iowa showed glimpses of being a team that was a year away from being something special. The Hawkeyes harassed teams defensively with their zone and their press, and they showed spurts of dominance. But six losses by four points or fewer along with zero victories over ranked opponents kept Iowa out of the NCAA tournament.
After a run to the championship game of the NIT, the Hawkeyes — the core of whom now has as much experience playing together as any team in the Big Ten — held a meeting before the start of this season to air out past frustrations and set a new lofty goal: competing for the Big Ten championship.
Right now, that pursuit is looking realistic. Things have definitely changed in Iowa City.
“To be honest, I thought that last year would be how we’re playing this year,” Marble said. “At the same time, we had five freshmen coming in last year, so you know it doesn’t always go as planned. I knew at some point we would be able to get over the hump. We’re now more experienced, we have even more depth — people that can come and contribute off the bench. So I’m not surprised at the success we’re having. We just have to continue to find ways to keep playing.”