Big Ten competition proves fierce for Hawkeyes

A win in the Big Ten is never guaranteed, and Iowa has found that out in recent weeks.


Iowa guard Connor McCaffrey tries to get the ball past Illinois center Kofi Cockburn with Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu coming up behind him, all with Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl watching closely from the side during a men’s basketball game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, February 2, 2020. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 72-65. (Nichole Harris/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Ruden, Pregame Editor

The buzzer had sounded and the scoreboard wasn’t going to change, but the activities continued following Iowa’s 72-65 victory over Illinois on Sunday.

After a late Joe Wieskamp dunk and foul that wasn’t called in the final seconds, a scuffle broke out, and the handshake line was cut off midway through.

In a conference where every win has been earned this season, it’s not surprising to see the passion boil over after a game. It’s just another battle in the Big Ten.

“You’re going to get everybody’s best shot in this league,” Iowa guard CJ Fredrick said. “Top to bottom, it’s a really good league — a tough, physical league. It’s just a lot of fun. This is what you sign up to do if you want to play big-time college basketball.”

Following Iowa’s win over the Illini, seven teams now sit within 2.5 games of first place in the Big Ten.

As of Sunday, six teams remain in the top 25 with four others receiving votes — meaning 10 of the conference’s 14 teams have received national recognition.

The teams tied for 11th in the standings —Michigan and Ohio State — earned top-10 rankings earlier this season.

Because of the conference’s depth, one mistake on any night could play a big role in determining seeding for the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

The top four seeds in the conference tournament receive a double-bye and don’t have to take the floor until Friday of tournament week. Nos. 5-10 escape the first round before competing on Thursday.

That raises the stakes for each game.

“We play in front of packed houses every single night — sold-out crowds, hostile environments in the most competitive league in the country,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “If you don’t bring it, one causal moment can cost you a game. We’re asking 18 to 22-year-olds to go out and fight every night. That’s what makes this league so good.”

Nine conference games still remain for the Hawkeyes. Iowa will have to face Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Illinois before the season comes to an end.

Fredrick said Iowa prepares for the ultra-tough conference schedule by practicing stressful situations, such as losing by five or trailing by two in a clutch moment.

The Hawkeyes have needed that. Four of their past five games have been decided by double digits, while the others were 10-point games that remained close for much of the second half.

“We do a lot of situations in practice … that might not be comfortable,” Fredrick said. “But we got to find a way to win. That’s kind of what this league is. It might not be pretty, but a win’s a win in this league. That’s what you got to do. You got to somehow find a way to get it done.”

Iowa’s competitiveness certainly showed toward the end of its win on Sunday. While the skirmish at the end of the game stole the show, it doesn’t mask the passion showed by both teams.

Utilizing that grit on the floor will only help the Hawkeyes moving forward.

“In order to win, we’ve got to be the tougher team,” Iowa forward Luka Garza said. “I think we can’t take anybody for granted — you definitely can’t because there’s no team to take for granted this year.”