You would think that two basketball programs separated by half a continent and a Grand Canyon of recent success wouldn't have much to talk about. After all, UConn has won four national titles since the last time Iowa made the Sweet 16 (more on that in a minute).
However, Iowa and UConn have had more than their fair share of memorable run-ins in the last 25 years, with another one scheduled for 5:30 CT tonight at Madison Square Garden. Given that we don't see our Husky cousins that often, let's look back at some of those games.
NOVEMBER 24, 1995: THE KINGSBURY GAME
Tom Davis's Hawkeyes, then ranked tenth nationally, ran into No. 6 UConn in the semifinals of the world's most awesome basketball tournament, the Great Alaska Shootout. The very concept of the Great Alaska Shootout was insane: Let's get a handful of the nation's best college basketball teams to travel to a remote northern location in the dead of winter to play some hoops. On the day Iowa played UConn, the sun was up for a total of 6 hours, 33 minutes and never got more than eight degrees above the southern horizon.
UConn had some serious talent in 1995: Ray Allen and Travis Knight ended up in the NBA for a while, and Doron Sheffer was nothing to trifle with. But on a dark, cold Alaskan night, it was Chris Kingsbury who got on fire and lit up the state.
Kingsbury didn't score his first points until more than 18 minutes had expired, though he had made an exquisite Kingsburyan behind-the-back pass to Jess Settles earlier in the half. The second half, however, was all Kingsbury. He scored 27 points in the second half and overtime, including a ridiculous turning three-point basket from a solid four feet behind the arc to tie the game at 84 with 1:12 to play. A 36-footer in the last two minutes of overtime left the ESPN2 announcers giggling in awe. There was nothing UConn, a team that finished the year No. 3 in the nation, could do in response.
MARCH 18, 1999: GOODBYE DR. TOM
By the last couple of months of the 1998-99 season, the Dr. Tom Davis story had fully taken hold. Davis, Iowa's all-time leader in wins, did not have his contract renewed the following season by athletic director Bob Bowlsby. Davis had not made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in more than a decade, and had missed the tournament entirely the previous year, and so the 1998-99 season would be his swan song.
And what a way to go. Iowa, led by sophomore Dean Oliver, super-super-super-senior Jess Settles (he'd played in that 1995 game, for chrissake), and a veritable who's who of guys deep in Iowa lore like Guy Rucker, J.R. Koch, Jacob Jaacks, Joey Range and Duez Henderson, beat UAB and Arkansas to punch a ticket into the NCAA Tournament's second weekend for the first time since 1998. Next up: UConn, with three future NBA players led by Rip Bleeping Hamilton and Minneapolis high school product Khalid El-Amin.
It didn't go well for Iowa, which fell behind by five at the half before El-Amin got into a fight with Range and Jaacks.
Iowa regained the lead at 43-42 early in the second half and stayed close until the last five minutes, but the eventual national champion was too much on that March night.
They would not be too much eight months later.
NOVEMBER 11, 1999: GAME REDACTED
Iowa's next game would also be against UConn, this time at Madison Square Garden for the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic. The Huskies were preseason No. 1, with El-Amin and future pro Jake Voskuhl returning, along with experienced scorers Albert Mouring and Kevin Freeman.
Iowa, meanwhile, didn't look to have much. Oliver, Jaacks, Henderson, and JUCO transfer Rob Griffin were the backbone of the squad. Kyle Galloway, who was there on a full-ride academic scholarship, was getting significant minutes. None of it mattered, though, because the true star of the Y2K Hawks was new head coach Steve Alford.
It's genuinely difficult to comprehend the effect of Alford, fresh off a Sweet 16 run of his own with Southwest Missouri State, on campus that fall. While new football coach Kirk Ferentz was getting boatraced by everyone all fall, Alford was filling up lecture halls for instructional seminars about basketball; I was in one that filled every seat in Pappajohn's biggest auditorium. Ferentz Schmerentz: Iowa was going to be a basketball school now.
With that said, the roster was full vintage Dr. Tom, full of hard-workin' Iowa kids and oddball projects like 7'2" Spanish center Antonio Ramos. Alford was going to be king of the state, but he could not work miracles, right?
You would have thought Iowa won the national championship that night in the Ped Mall. People streamed out of the dorms to yell and scream and attempt to turn over cars. I can't say I've never seen it before or since, because I was there after the 2008 Penn State football win, but it was on par with the biggest football victories of the last twenty years in Iowa City.
Unbeknownst to all of us, it was the high point of Alford's tenure.