By John Bohnenkamp
There was a different feeling sitting courtside at Western Hall on Saturday for Western Illinois’ game against Oral Roberts.
It was the end of the first full week of January, which meant the end of the first full week of true conference play in college basketball.
Sure, there were conference games in December, but those were just appetizers for January and February, when league play is all that’s remaining.
Those December games were fun, and had that conference intensity, but teams were still coming together. Iowa, for example, played at Purdue and at home against Illinois, and then had four nonconference games to add to the postseason resumé and then get ready for the rest of the Big Ten schedule.
Conference play can quickly put the nonconference season in the rear-view mirror, for either good or bad.
Northern Iowa went 4-6 in the nonconference schedule, but is 3-1 in Missouri Valley Conference play, tied for the league lead, after Saturday’s win at Missouri State.
Iowa State swept through nonconference play at 12-0, but is 1-2 in the Big 12 with losses to Baylor and Oklahoma.
Western Illinois went 9-2 in the nonconference schedule, split its first two Summit League games, lost at Iowa, and then got back into conference play and lost at St. Thomas before dropping Saturday’s game, 87-86, missing a chance to win the game at the buzzer.
Conference seasons are lengthy races through the coldest months of winter, and we’re only at the beginning, but there are different feelings depending on how you started. If you’re in the lead this early, everyone chasing you is still close behind, and a stumble or two sends you back in the pack. If you’re falling behind, there is that feeling of pressure to gain ground.
Iowa is 1-3 in the Big Ten, already three games out of the lead. The 20-game Big Ten schedule has proven to be its own journey — down can soon be up, and vice versa. There’s no need to panic yet, but every loss seems to tighten the vise.
It is the first week of January. March seems a long time from now, but yet there seems to be not a lot of time. Such is life in conference play.
Patience, it seems, is the key.
It’s why Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter was philosophical after Saturday’s loss. The Leathernecks’ current slump, especially when it comes to offense, is still there. But Jeter knows the work is being done.
“Are we doing the right things to get us out of it? Yes,” he said. “Have we gotten out of it? No. That’s the best I can leave it at.”
BACK INTO RHYTHM
Iowa’s women’s basketball team gutted out a 95-86 win at Nebraska on Sunday felt like the Hawkeyes’ four-game winning streak to open the season.
That streak was interrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak within Iowa’s program, causing the cancellation of three games. And with more schedule changes at the end of December because of COVID-19 issues within other programs, the Hawkeyes seemed to have lost their rhythm.
Thursday’s 77-69 home loss to Northwestern seemed to be a low point, so getting the win on the road against a team that came in with one loss could prove to be a key moment in the season.
Caitlin Clark had a 31-point, 12-assist game, and McKenna Warnock had 23 points and 10 rebounds. Those numbers felt a lot more like those early November games.
Photo: Iowa’s Ahron Ulis drives to the basket in Thursday’s game at Wisconsin. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)