IOWA CITY, Iowa — As road trips go, the Iowa men’s basketball squad will have none shorter or more relaxing this season than the two-hour bus ride from Iowa City to Des Moines this weekend.
For the sixth straight season, Iowa competes in the Hy-Vee Classic, which features the state’s four Division I men’s basketball programs. Saturday, the Hawkeyes play Drake at Wells Fargo Arena, site of numerous high school tournaments and even two rounds of NCAA basketball two years ago. The Hawkeyes-Bulldogs’ 1 p.m. game serves as the curtain-raiser to Iowa State-Northern Iowa later in the afternoon.
This event is modeled after Indiana’s Crossroads Classic, which features Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler. That setting has enough sizzle to figuratively battle St. Elmo’s as Indianapolis’ best steakhouse. The Des Moines-based classic, well, takes place.
Maybe I’m a bit unfair in my criticism of the Hy-Vee Class, which started as the Big 4 Classic in 2012. But the more removed I am from the instate basketball round-robin that predates this event, the more I realize how special it was and how lackluster its replacement has become.
This four-team, two-game event ended nearly 20 years of tradition where each of the teams annually played the others on campuses. Iowa faced Drake in every season but one from 1965 through 2011. The Hawkeyes played Northern Iowa annually from 1988 through 2012. Iowa State battled Northern Iowa almost every year from 1980 through 2011. Drake and Iowa State met every calendar year from 1908 through 2012.
It was the perfect little round-robin. For the Hawkeyes, those three games always took place in early December. That meant playing Northern Iowa on a Tuesday, then facing arch-rival Iowa State on a Friday. The following week, the Hawkeyes would meet Drake on a Friday or Saturday. Iowa State’s time frame was similar. The in-state series provided a natural pivot from football and sent the fans into basketball mode.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t grumbling about the round-robin. Throughout the 2000s, coaches from both Iowa and Iowa State complained about traveling to Drake and Northern Iowa. It was understandable considering both Missouri Valley Conference squads had championship seasons and Northern Iowa was dominant at home. When their contracts expired in 2011, both Iowa and Iowa State coaches opted out of those annual series. It didn’t go over well publicly or with officials from the Bulldogs and Panthers.
A compromise was reached among the four athletic directors to stage a doubleheader every December in Des Moines. Iowa would play either Drake or Northern Iowa, and Iowa State would play the other. The following year, the matchups reversed. Bulldogs and Panthers coaches, officials and fans disliked the classic because they lost a huge crowd against a power opponent every-other year. The Hawkeyes and Cyclones — which held all the power — didn’t like it because they had to play a good-to-very-good mid-major program at a neutral site.
Some of the games were blowouts, others were competitive. There have been surprises and upsets. The action on the floor is compelling. Unfortunately, the atmosphere doesn’t match it.
Through all of the grandiose discussions of turning the basketball event into a yearly showcase for the four schools, the classic really has fizzled. Fans receive tickets to both games, but Wells Fargo Arena rarely is packed for both of them. Iowa and Iowa State fans would rather chew glass than cheer for the other team, and the only time they overlap in the arena is at the end of the first game. Northern Iowa and Drake are MVC rivals so their fans aren’t actively rooting for the other team, either.
The old round-robin games were different. Northern Iowa’s McLeod Center was a snake pit. Drake’s Knapp Center was a bit more split among the fan bases but still usually full. Carver-Hawkeye Arena and Hilton Coliseum also had good crowds when the Panthers and Bulldogs came to town. Those games felt like basketball. The Hy-Vee Classic feels like an unwanted family reunion where everybody attends out of obligation.
“It’s kind of just fits on our schedule; it’s the next game on the schedule,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “I don’t know where it goes from here in terms of length.”
The old days aren’t coming back. The round-robin existed when both the Big Ten and Big 12 played 16 league games. Beginning next year, the Big Ten schedule jumps to 20. When the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and Gavitt Games matchups are figured in, along with exempt tournaments and the Iowa-Iowa State game, the Hawkeyes have about five or six games left unspoken.
The Hy-Vee Classic contract, which expires in 2019, probably should expire with it. It’s a sad end to a decent concept but one that just never caught on like a classic should.