Iowa-Iowa State returns to spotlight

After quite a layoff, Iowa's in-state basketball rivalry has big implications again

Updated: December 13, 2013, 9:34 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Ask Iowans of a certain age about their state's seminal sporting moment and if they don't suggest the day of Dec. 19, 1987, as the moment, they will most assuredly rank it in the top five.

That's when a skinny kid from Memphis, Tenn., a three-year benchwarmer who kept begging coach Johnny Orr for a chance, dropped 54 on Iowa in Iowa State's 102-100 win. The poetically named LaFester Rhodes connected on 20 of his 31 shots that night, etching himself into the record books and Iowa lore.

Fred Hoiberg was at Hilton Coliseum for the event. The kid who would own Ames by the time he graduated was just a hotshot recruit at the time, a sure-thing signee for the Cyclones who still sounds like a little kid when he recalls Rhodes' performance.

"It was the most unbelievable individual performance I have ever seen in my life,'' said Hoiberg, who would average 19.9 in his own senior season. "The roof just about blew off the place.''

[+] EnlargeFred Hoiberg
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsFred Hoiberg's Iowa State Cylcones have made the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons.

Hilton might very well recreate that magic on Friday night when the Hawkeyes come to town. The Iowa-Iowa State rivalry always has been a good and a contentious one – "Like any rival, the fans are very loyal to their team and they don't care too much for the other,'' Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said – but it's been living well off Broadway, in the deep reaches of Iowa.

The two schools just haven't been players on the national scene, at least not enough to move the needle beyond the Midwest. They certainly haven't been relevant enough at the same time for it to matter outside of the state.

So consider Friday night throwback night, or perhaps more accurately, Back to the Future. Iowa State is ranked 17th in the country, Iowa No. 23, marking just the second time in the matchup's history that both teams entered the game in the top 25.

The last time? Yep, you guessed it, with Mr. Rhodes, back when the Cyclones were No. 20 and Iowa No. 7.

"You want to get your program to the point where you're playing games that matter,'' McCaffery said. "This game is always going to matter, but obviously now it matters in different ways. There are implications across the board – from rankings to NCAA potential to recruiting. When you recruit guys, you want them to have that opportunity, to play in a game like this. That's the challenge. That's the fun.''

On March 28, 2010, when Iowa tabbed McCaffery as its head coach -- luring him from a comfy gig at Siena to a program headed for a nosedive in Iowa City after Todd Lickliter's quick crash-and-burn there -- fun wasn't the best descriptor for the job.

Players were transferring, the Hawkeyes were losing and the fans were miserable, tired of a stodgy team that could barely break the 65-point barrier.

Two-plus hours away in Ames, things weren't much better. Greg McDermott had bolted across the border to Creighton, unable to return any luster to the Iowa State program. Then came the conference-realignment rumor mill that put the Cyclones squarely in the land of misfit toys, without a football team to make them attractive enough in the pigskin-driven grab bag.

Into that debacle, one month after McCaffery came to his own mess at Iowa, walked Hoiberg, a beloved son without a lick of head-coaching experience.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
Dave Weaver/USA Today SportsFran McCaffery came to Iowa in 2010, taking over after Todd Lickliter was fired.

Both set about transforming their teams, albeit in completely different fashions. McCaffery convinced some players left behind – Roy Devyn Marble crucial among them – to stick around and take a chance, and then did what he's always done, pounded the pavement in search of four-year guys.

Hoiberg went Ellis Island, accepting a host of transfers who had worn out their welcomes elsewhere, and eventually his own four-year players.

"The plan was to get as much talent as possible, not to take so many transfers. It just worked out that way,'' Hoiberg said. "It worked for us and Fran's way worked for him, too. He's built things up really well and they're playing some of the best basketball I've seen.''

McCaffery's fans are still waiting for the ultimate reward. His team has made back-to-back NIT appearances, including a run to the title game last season, but the dangling carrot of an NCAA tournament invite still hasn't been realized.

Meantime, Hoiberg's quicker fix has resulted in speedier results. The Cyclones have made the past two NCAA fields and were this close to the Sweet 16 last season.

"I respect how Fred has done things,'' McCaffery said. "He's done a terrific job of blending pieces, sometimes pieces he didn't know he was going to have. He's made it work and people don't realize, it's very hard to do things the way he has.''

But enough with the mutual admiration society. Back to the task at hand – a one-time second-string rivalry game that will extend into the national picture.

Cyclone fans camped out for the Michigan game in November and Hoiberg expects them to do the same this week (it's 18 degrees in Ames, which is slightly more daunting than waiting for tickets in Florida, Durham, N.C., and San Diego).

It's not unlike it was in 1987. Hoiberg remembers Ames in the days before that game and then remembers the rarity, a game that actually lived up to the hype.

Now the Cyclones and Hawkeyes will try to recreate history. They certainly might match the 80s version in scoring.

Iowa State ranks first in the nation, averaging 91.7 points per game; Iowa is a hair behind, sixth at 89.5.

"You've got two talented teams with shot-makers,'' McCaffery said.

But is there a present-day LaFester Rhodes? That's the bigger question.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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