Men's hoops plays Xavier in Paradise Jam


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What would be a vacation for most will be the Iowa men's basketball team's first major test of the season.

The team is traveling to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, to take part in the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. It will be the first game away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the Hawkeyes under Fran McCaffery, where the team has started 1-1. But more importantly, this will be the first set of big games for a program trying to regain at least a little piece of respect after three abysmal seasons.

The Hawkeyes have to play three games in four days against a field of eight that features three teams that appeared in last season's NCAA Tournament. Last year, Iowa went 0-11 against teams that qualified for the field of 65.

And first up for Iowa may be the best team represented at the Paradise Jam: defending Atlantic 10 champion Xavier. The Musketeers (2-0) are always tough, and this season is no different. This is something Iowa is well aware of.

"[Xavier] will challenge us in every way," McCaffery said. "With their speed, with their guard play, with a 7-foot center. It's a team that sort of knows and understands how to win."

Iowa's coach is correct — the Musketeers went to the Sweet 16 last season before losing a double-overtime heartbreaker to Kansas State.

McCaffery has continually expressed that he still wants more practice time to get his team ready for these types of games, as well as the Big Ten season.

Still, it seems that the players are eager to get a shot at some of the top teams in the country.

"We play some pretty good teams down there," freshman forward Zach McCabe said. "I think we're just all looking forward to being able to play down there and win some games."

Winning games will be tough in any of the Hawkeyes' three contests. Regardless of what happens against Xavier, Iowa will play either Seton Hall or Alabama in the next game. Both teams that are projected to finish near the top or at middle of their conferences.

Getting Matt Gatens back from a hand injury would certainly brighten the Hawkeyes' hopes for an upset.

After tearing a tendon in his non-shooting hand a few weeks ago, last season's leading scorer has been in a suit on the bench for the team's first two games, but McCaffery said it was "a good possibility" that he would be in the lineup tonight.

Gatens' return could be a big boost for the squad while it enters games against squads with more national following than previous opponents Louisiana-Monroe and South Dakota State. But players know that Gatens or no Gatens, there will be a different intensity surrounding these matchups — even though the gym only holds 3,000 spectators.

"We realize it's going to be a different level of competition," Eric May said. "And we're going to have to bring more energy."

May is the team's leading scorer, averaging 14.5 points through the first two games. But if Gatens is back in the lineup, expect more scoring from May and the rest of the team within the confines of the fast-break offense, and in general.

No matter what the team's lineup, one thing is clear: Everyone on the Iowa bench expects better play against better opponents.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what our guys can do," McCaffery said. "I think we'll play better than we've played."

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