Iowa had reached its highest point of this season. The Hawkeyes were ranked 10th nationally for the first time since 2002. They traveled to a Northwestern team they had smashed by 26 points two weeks earlier.
Again, the Wildcats couldn't corral Iowa. The Hawkeyes cemented their position as one of the Big Ten's top teams with a 76-50 drubbing of Northwestern Jan. 25 in Evanston. They moved to 5-2 in the league with their only losses coming at Michigan and Wisconsin, programs that would finish the season in first and second place, respectively.
Iowa will be looking to recapture the high level of play it displayed against the Wildcats two months ago when the teams face off in Thursday's Big Ten Tournament first round (8 p.m. CT, ESPN 2). The Hawkeyes are 4-7 since their last meeting, including losing five of their last six.
"They're probably going to be very confident against us just because of the way the two games went," first-year Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said. "The first time we played them, we were just completely overmatched. I think they put up 93 points and ran up and down the floor on us all night long. We really didn't give them much resistance.
"I thought we played much better the second time we played them at our place. The game was very close for 20-25 minutes. Then their depth and athleticism and their length has been a problem for us just because we haven't been blessed with the bodies because of injury and just not having the depth."
The Wildcats responded to the lopsided second loss to Iowa by winning their next two contests at Wisconsin and Minnesota. That surge was followed by a seven-game skid which ended Sunday with a win at Purdue. Northwestern finished the regular season one game ahead of the last-place Boilermakers and secured the rematch with the Hawkeyes (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten).
"We have our work cut out for us," Collins said. "We have a couple of days to get ready and hopefully play our best game on Thursday night."
In the first meeting, a 93-67 Iowa home win on Jan. 9, the Hawkeyes held a 17-2 advantage on fast-break points. It helped them shoot 56.9 percent from the field. The Wildcats were 23-59 (39.0) on field goals, including 5 of 24 (20.8) from behind the three-point arc.
Collins instructed his team to limit Iowa's run-outs in the rematch by dropping at least four men back on defense after each Northwestern shot. The Wildcats enjoyed a 10-2 edge on fast-break points but still fell by the same 26-point margin they did in Game 1. The Hawkeyes held a 31-20 advantage in rebounds and limited Northwestern to 36.4 shooting from the floor (20.0 on threes).
In the second meeting, Iowa grabbed control of a game in which it led by four points three minutes into the second half with a quick 7-0 run. The Wildcats trimmed their deficit to seven a few times during the next three minutes before the Hawkeyes finished the contest on a 31-12 spurt.
"For us, as the season has gone along, we've done a much better job of being able to get back in transition and make teams play against our half-court defense," Collins said. "When you play against Iowa, that's a huge key because they are so good at getting the ball out and getting easy baskets in the open floor. With their ability to go to their bench and rotate fresh bodies, it almost seems like they keep the pressure on you all game long.
"We did a much better job in the second game but it was only for about 25 minutes. The last 15 minutes, we got a little bit worn down. That's going to be our challenge to be able to do it for a full 40 minutes and to try to keep the game at a manageable level and not let them get out and get their runs going. It's been hard for us to come back when we get down so we have to keep the game at a manageable level and hopefully keep it more to our tempo and keep the score down a little bit and give ourselves a chance down the stretch to be able to have a chance to win."
Keeping the game in the half-court could also could benefit Northwestern with the Hawkeyes recent defensive struggles. Their last six opponents are averaging 82.5 points per game with Iowa dropping five of those contests.
"Defensively, whether it's man or zone, it's containing dribble penetration," Hawkeye Assistant Kirk Speraw said. "We're giving up some dribble penetration in both areas. We've got to tighten that up. We've got sit down in our stance a little bit better; guard our yard a little bit better."
During Iowa's first 12 Big Ten games, when it was 8-4, it was allowing 69.1 points per contest. Three of its last five opponents have scored at least 86 points with two of them exceeding 90.
"We give up too many potential shot-clock violation points," senior Roy Devyn Marble said.
"You're probably not going to find another team that gives up as many points as we do in the least two or three seconds of the shot clock," junior Aaron White said. "It's ridiculous and something we've got to fix."
Illinois scored 37 second-half points Saturday in a 66-63 upset of the Hawkeyes on Senior Night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Illini shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half and limited the home team to two fast-break points for the game.
Iowa Head Coach Fran McCaffery, while not pleased with his team's second-half defense, pointed the game's start as the reason it lost. The Illini raced out to a 20-6 lead against the lethargic Hawkeyes who seemed to be overlooking the underdog.
Now, Iowa returns to the court against a Wildcat team it handled easier than any team on its conference schedule. The Hawkeyes must guard against complacency versus what should be a hungry Northwestern team they're expected to beat.
"I don't think it will cause us any problems getting (the players') attention," Speraw said. "We've got great respect for Northwestern and how hard they're playing. They'll have our guys' full attention. It's not easy to beat anybody three times in one season. We know that. We understand that. I don't think it will be a problem with our guys. They've done a great job all year long on being mentally focused on the task at hand and I think it will be the same on Thursday."