DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - For decades, Northern Iowa and Drake were guaranteed at least one home and one road game a year against a Big Ten and Big 12 team.
It was a luxury rarely afforded a Missouri Valley team - and an opportunity for a resume booster that few mid-majors could match. It's now been reduced to a single game on a neutral floor in Iowa's state capital.
The yearly home-and-home matchups the Panthers and Bulldogs had with Iowa and Iowa State have been replaced by a doubleheader, the Big Four Classic, on Saturday in Des Moines.
It's a setup that clearly favors Iowa and Iowa State, who avoid having to play road games in Des Moines and Cedar Falls. But a December doubleheader could also prove to be a roaring success with fans, so for now all four coaches are publicly expressing optimism about the event.
The Hawkeyes (8-2) will face Northern Iowa (6-3) for the 43rd time. The Cyclones (7-3) will play Drake for the 171st time, but for the first time on a neutral floor.
"It's going to be a great day for basketball. An opportunity for all four programs to be in the same building. An opportunity for two very good basketball games," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
Jacobson is right about that.
The Hawkeyes will be looking for a bit of payback after getting blasted up in Cedar Falls last year.
Northern Iowa handed Iowa perhaps its ugliest loss under third-year coach Fran McCaffery. The Panthers used a 21-2 run to blow out the Hawkeyes 80-60, and McCaffery was so frustrated that he got ejected.
Iowa looks like a much better team now than 12 months ago.
The Hawkeyes have won three in a row with a starting lineup that includes three freshmen; center Adam Woodbury and guards Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell.
Last Friday, Iowa blew past Iowa State - yes, that rivalry is still alive - behind an increasingly balanced offense strengthened by its added depth.
"It's a completely different situation than we had before, because there are so many ways we can go," McCaffery said. "Now we've got guys that if they're pressuring up over here, and we've got guys over here taking shots. I have so many more things in my mind that I can go to offensively to get a basket."
Northern Iowa has played tough against top-notch competition this season. The problem was that, up until last weekend, the Panthers hadn't actually beaten any of them.
Northern Iowa looked good in a tournament in the Bahamas in November, playing No. 6 Louisville and Memphis within five points. But the Panthers broke through with an overtime win at George Mason last week and clearly won't fear the Hawkeyes.
Northern Iowa and Iowa have split the last 12 meetings.
"They've got guys that come with it on a regular basis. Anything short of that, you don't have a chance against them. So you have to not only match that level of intensity but do a better job with it," McCaffery said.
Drake (4-4) is the de facto home team, since it plays its home games just a few miles away.
But the Bulldogs figure to have the longer odds than the Panthers.
Drake did beat the Cyclones in Des Moines last season, but that came in mid-November as Iowa State struggled to assimilate its slew of transfers. The Cyclones, who figure to have a large contingent of fans in Wells Fargo Arena as well, have beaten six opponents by at least 20 points and lead the all-time series with Drake 106-65.
The Iowa State-Drake game figures to be a big draw since both teams are local. The Hawkeyes are a state-wide draw, and Northern Iowa certainly has plenty of alumni scattered throughout greater Des Moines.
Tickets are reportedly close to being sold out. But even McCaffery wondered this week if fans will stay for both games or just watch the one their team is playing in.
That's just one of a number of questions about this new setup, which is scheduled to run through 2015.
"I think it's good for the state," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It's going to be a lot of fun for everyone involved."
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