Men's basketball faces first in-state team this season


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Tonight, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery will set his first matchup against an in-state opponent, when the Northern Iowa Panthers invade Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 7:06 p.m.

The Hawkeyes (4-4) don't appear to be intimidated by arguably the state's best basketball program β€” even though they face a Northern Iowa (4-2) team on a three-game winning streak, including a victory against that squad from Ames.

Iowa players gave relatively conservative answers concerning the Panthers, with most playing down any rivalry.

"It's still another game" was one typical answer from freshman Melsahn Basabe. "We want to win every game. So we're coming Tuesday to compete."

These types of answers come because β€” most likely β€” for the Iowa program, this game isn't about the rivalry. It's about an opportunity.

As far as a benchmark win for a program looking to get some national exposure other than a recruiting violation featuring Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, this is probably the best chance for a win over a tournament-bound opponent before conference play.

UNI holds a rare distinction as one of just three mid-major schools to make the NCAA Tournament five out of the last seven seasons. The other two "non-major" schools are basketball behemoths Gonzaga and Memphis.

Iowa doesn't boast any credentials near those in recent years.

But this year's squad is completely revamped in its style, now a complete contrast of Northern Iowa's methodical half-court tactics. And McCaffery has played UNI twice in the last two years while at Siena, going 1-1.

Even more importantly, the Hawkeyes believe they have a never-say-die attitude that will keep them in every game they play.

"I've been noticing we're a team that always fights," sophomore guard Eric May said. "Maybe we lose focus for a minute, but we always regain that and keep fighting back."

Others agreed with this assessment of the team philosophy.

"We're not a weak-minded team," Basabe said. "It doesn't seem like we ever give up, and we haven't lain down for anyone."

The squad's play has backed this up.

Down by 22 at one point in the second half to Xavier on Nov. 19, the Hawkeyes trimmed the deficit to eight points with two minutes left.

And in that Idaho State contest, Iowa let a 26-point lead get down to five points in the second half, but held the Bengals scoreless for the last four minutes to win by 17.

Against a defense-heavy Northern Iowa, this fight is going to be important.

In truth, one game won't make or break the Iowa program. It's possibly not even the most important game against an in-state rival this week with a major conference school in Iowa State coming to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday.

Hence, McCaffery said that the team's progression is steady, despite results in any game.

"We're still trying to figure some things out," he said. "Still trying to understand the anatomy of the game. But I think [we're] making strides in a positive direction without question."

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