IOWA CITY — This year when Iowa basketball players talk about anticipation, they aren’t talking about looking forward to a holiday break.
Instead, the Hawkeyes are eager for the start of a challenging Big Ten schedule which opens Monday with the first of three straight games against rated opponents.
Sixth-ranked Indiana visits Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, a conference opener which is followed by a road trip to second-rated Michigan on Jan. 6 and a home game four days later against 20th-rated Michigan State.
The three teams have a combined record of 34-3, but that only adds to the eagerness Iowa players have after compiling the best non-conference record Iowa has had in eight seasons.
“I can’t wait,” senior Eric May said. “Obviously, the Big Ten is a great conference, but I’ve been excited for the Big Ten to start since the beginning of the year. We’re all looking forward to it to see where we fit in.”
Coach Fran McCaffery gave his team a three-day break after it improved to 11-2 with a win over Coppin State on Saturday.
He said the first extended period of time off since the official start of practice in mid-October is needed.
“A lot of coaches get freaked out and bring them back on Christmas Day or don’t let them go at all, but it’s a long season,” McCaffery said. “We start working these kids out at the end of August, so they need a little bit of break.”
McCaffery likes the timing as well, saying it provides a way to review what has worked and what hasn’t during the non-conference portion of the schedule and look ahead.
“It gives us a chance to see how we can improve as we go into what we know is going to be an incredible challenge,” McCaffery said.
The Hawkeyes are scheduled to return to campus on today to begin working toward the start of the conference schedule.
Guard Devyn Marble expected his teammates to find a gym to take a few shots during the time off.
“We want to keep the momentum going, but I don’t think we’re as good as we can be yet,” he said. “…When we come back, we’ve got to be focused and really in tune when we get to practice.”
Forward Aaron White believes Iowa’s non-conference experiences have prepared the team well for what lies ahead.
“I think it was good for us that we had a couple of rough patches, a couple of games where we didn’t play our best,” he said. “I learned from every game and we didn’t take any game for granted. That’s big.”
McCaffery appreciates the approach he has seen from a team that has dealt with a stretch of six games in nine days, a quick turnaround with two games in two days at the Cancun Challenge, a road test in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and in winning rivalry games with Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
So, are the Hawkeyes ready for the Hoosiers and the rest of the Big Ten?
“We’ll find out pretty quick,” McCaffery said. “I think we are, but we have some work to do between now and then. We have great character, great camaraderie on the team, and I know our guys will be ready.”