Iowa-Iowa State returns to spotlight


Ask Iowans of a certain age about their state's seminal sporting moment and if they don't suggest the day of Dec. 19, 1987, as the moment, they will most assuredly rank it in the top five.

That's when a skinny kid from Memphis, Tenn., a three-year benchwarmer who kept begging coach Johnny Orr for a chance, dropped 54 on Iowa in Iowa State's 102-100 win. The poetically named LaFester Rhodes connected on 20 of his 31 shots that night, etching himself into the record books and Iowa lore.

Fred Hoiberg was at Hilton Coliseum for the event. The kid who would own Ames by the time he graduated was just a hotshot recruit at the time, a sure-thing signee for the Cyclones who still sounds like a little kid when he recalls Rhodes' performance.

"It was the most unbelievable individual performance I have ever seen in my life,'' said Hoiberg, who would average 19.9 in his own senior season. "The roof just about blew off the place.''

Hilton might very well recreate that magic on Friday night when the Hawkeyes come to town. The Iowa-Iowa State rivalry always has been a good and a contentious one – "Like any rival, the fans are very loyal to their team and they don't care too much for the other,'' Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said – but it's been living well off Broadway, in the deep reaches of Iowa.

The two schools just haven't been players on the national scene, at least not enough to move the needle beyond the Midwest. They certainly haven't been relevant enough at the same time for it to matter outside of the state.

So consider Friday night throwback night, or perhaps more accurately, Back to the Future. Iowa State is ranked 17th in the country, Iowa No. 23, marking just the second time in the matchup's history that both teams entered the game in the top 25.

The last time? Yep, you guessed it, with Mr. Rhodes, back when the Cyclones were No. 20 and Iowa No. 7.

"You want to get your program to the point where you're playing games that matter,'' McCaffery said. "This game is always going to matter, but obviously now it matters in different ways. There are implications across the board – from rankings to NCAA potential to recruiting. When you recruit guys, you want them to have that opportunity, to play in a game like this. That's the challenge. That's the fun.''

On March 28, 2010, when Iowa tabbed McCaffery as its head coach -- luring him from a comfy gig at Siena to a program headed for a nosedive in Iowa City after Todd Lickliter's quick crash-and-burn there -- fun wasn't the best descriptor for the job.

Players were transferring, the Hawkeyes were losing and the fans were miserable, tired of a stodgy team that could barely break the 65-point barrier.

Two-plus hours away in Ames, things weren't much better. Greg McDermott had bolted across the border to Creighton, unable to return any luster to the Iowa State program. Then came the conference-realignment rumor mill that put the Cyclones squarely in the land of misfit toys, without a football team to make them attractive enough in the pigskin-driven grab bag.

Into that debacle, one month after McCaffery came to his own mess at Iowa, walked Hoiberg, a beloved son without a lick of head-coaching experience.

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