For six years, Iowa and either Northern Iowa or Drake have collided in the Hy-Vee Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Previously known as the Big Four Classic, the event has served as a staple in college-basketball schedules in the state. But when the Hawkeyes take on the Panthers in Des Moines at 6 p.m. Saturday, it will be the seventh and final rendition of an Iowa tradition.
“A little bit [bittersweet],” said forward Nicholas Baer, who had one of his first breakout games at the event in 2015. “I’ve always taken pride in being able to play other in-state teams. Just being an Iowa kid, that’s something that I’ve always had. I’m a little sad to see it going away, but I understand with 20 league games, some changes had to be made. Just enjoying this last chance that we have.”
Coming off another in-state rivalry game against Iowa State that got a little chippy at times, Iowa is in the midst of four-straight nonconference games before it visits Purdue Jan. 3.
Northern Iowa posted a 4-5 record to start the season, but the Panthers have consistently had success under head coach Ben Jacobson, most recently a 23-13 finish in 2015-16.
In fact, Northern Iowa pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the NCAA Tournament in 2010, when it beat No. 1 overall seed Kansas to move on to the Sweet 16.
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Because Jacobson has consistently led the Panthers in the right direction, this is a game Iowa can’t overlook.
“This is definitely a game they probably mark on their schedule,” point guard Jordan Bohannon said. “A lot of guys on that team, they want to be in our shoes, they want to play for Iowa, I’m sure. For them to have the chance to play against us, we’re going to get their best shot.”
One of the main Panthers Iowa will have to keep its eyes on is freshman guard A.J. Green.
He has played alongside Iowa forward Joe Wieskamp, and many Hawkeyes are familiar with him from the Prime Time League. Green even hit a game-winner against Bohannon’s Linn-Mar team in high school in a substate final in 2016 that sent Cedar Falls to the state tournament.
Green leads the Panthers with 15.8 points a game, the only player on the team averaging in double figures, to go along with 3.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and a 34 percent mark from behind the arc.
He is supplemented by such solid players such as Wyatt Lohaus and Luke McDonnell, but Iowa knows that Green will be the go-to guy for the Panthers.
“His game is pretty complete — he can dribble, pass, and shoot, he’s got size, he can score in bunches, he can load people up,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “He’s always played the game with great confidence, and sometimes you see that not translate, but that’s not been the case with him. He’s kind of playing with the same kind of confidence and aggressiveness that he always has. It’s sort of been a seamless transition.”