Several of them have been to Madison Square Garden before.
Luka Garza has been there more times than he can count to watch his cousin, Amar Alibegovic, play for St. John’s. Nicholas Baer and Brady Ellingson were there sitting on the bench in street clothes and Dom Uhl was in uniform for two games during the 2014 2K Classic. Baer, Uhl, Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook all were there for the Big Ten’s preseason media day.
But except for six minutes of playing time that Uhl got in the 2K Classic, no one on the Iowa basketball team ever has actually played in a game at perhaps the world's most iconic basketball arena.
And they’re looking forward to it.
“Me and Tyler were joking, we were there for Big Ten media day and we didn’t even get to see the gym, which is kind of crazy,’’ Bohannon said. “It should be a fun time.’’
The Hawkeyes will take on Illinois at MSG in the first game of the Big Ten tournament today at 4:30 p.m. in a tussle between two teams looking to salvage something out of bitterly disappointing seasons.
They’re also looking to fully experience Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a legendary place to play and it’s something I’m sure I’ll remember forever so I want to make the most out of it,’’ Garza said.
To make it truly memorable, they’d like to register Iowa’s first victory in the tournament since 2013 and advance to a Thursday matchup with No. 5 seed Michigan.
The Hawkeyes and the Illini tied with Minnesota for 11th place in the Big Ten at 4-14 and their only regular-season meeting certainly was memorable. After trailing by 20 points in the first half, the Hawkeyes rallied and eventually won the game in overtime, 104-97. It was the only true road game they won all season.
However, that game took place a long time ago, on Jan. 11, and both teams have evolved since then, especially Illinois.
“I would like to think we’re playing a lot better now,’’ Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We’re a very young basketball team …
“I think we’re playing better offensively and I would like to think we’ve grown a little defensively.’’
The Illini (14-17 overall) also weren’t at full strength for that earlier meeting. Starting guard Te’Jon Lucas was suspended then. Freshman Mark Smith was sick.
As Iowa coach Fran McCaffery pointed out, Illini freshman Trent Frazier had not really shown much as a perimeter shooter to that point but he busted out with seven 3-point field goals against the Hawkeyes.
Leron Black, who also visited MSG for Big Ten media day along with teammate Michael Finke, has recently emerged as a big-time scoring threat, averaging 21.8 points per game and shooting 60 percent from 3-point range in the past six outings.
The Illini are a much deeper, more diversified team now.
“There are just so many ways they can go …’’ McCaffery said. “They’ve got a lot of pieces that are problematic.’’
Bohannon said the thing he has noticed is the tenacity with which the Illini play.
“They’re one of the best bottom teams in the entire country honestly from a record standpoint and how hard they play,’’ he said. “They deny everything … It should be a tough challenge because they don’t have a lot of pressure on them either. They’re just going to come out attacking and we’ve got to be ready for that.’’
The Hawkeyes (13-18) snapped a six-game losing streak Sunday with a victory over Northwestern. They have struggled with turnovers and 3-point defense off and on all season, but they have little problem scoring.
Underwood saw that firsthand the first time around as Bohannon poured in 29 points, Cook collected 21 points and 13 rebounds and Garza added 19 points and 11 rebounds.
“Bohannon is a guy who had a big game against us,’’ Underwood said. “If he has a clean look, he’s going to make it. They’re just an elite offensive team … They have multiple guys who are capable of having big runs and big games, and we just have to be solid all the way around against them.’’