Photos courtesy of Hulst Photography and HGS Photography
Division I college basketball in the Midwest is booming. Eight of the last 10 NCAA tournament championship games had at least one team from the Midwest participate. Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Michigan State are consistently powerhouse programs. This year’s high-profile Cinderella story, Loyola-Chicago, is a “mid-major” program that made a push into the Final Four after upsetting Tennessee and Kansas State. West Coast basketball is influenced by style and flash, thanks to the “Showtime” Lakers. East Coast basketball gets its cutthroat mentality from the streets of New York. The “tough together” reputation of Midwest basketball programs juxtaposes the glitz and glamor of hoops on the coasts.
When thinking of basketball in the Midwest, Iowa basketball probably does not come to mind— but it should. From the four D1 programs in the state—Drake University, University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa—more than 20 players, men and women, have gone pro in the last two years.
“We do not have any big professional basketball teams that draw national attention from sports fans,” says Caitlin Ingle, Missouri Valley Conference All-League performer and pro basketball player in Denmark. “A lot of players in Iowa are blue-collar basketball players. They are not super flashy, but they work hard, play together, and do all the little things. Unfortunately, these teams do not always get the respect and recognition they deserve.”
Iowa college basketball has grown despite little attention from outsiders. It is home to teams from the Big 12, Big Ten, and Missouri Valley Conferences, and the men’s teams from those conferences annually compete against each other at the Big Four Classic. NBA G League shooting guard and former Iowa Hawkeye Peter Jok says such an event is unmatched in any other Midwestern state. “It just shows that we have four teams in the state of Iowa that compete at a very high level every year, so to have all four play on the same day where everyone in the state can come and watch is great for the fans.”
Numbers show that program success and creating professional athletes go hand in hand. Nine of the first 10 American players drafted to the NBA last year were a part of teams that played in the NCAA tournament. A third of those participating NCAA teams are based in the Midwest.
The players who now climb the professional ranks attribute much of their collegiate success to the atmosphere of their institutions.
Drake graduate and 2016 Swiss pro league top scorer Richard Carter says, “The Drake community felt like family. On the court I felt nothing but love. Through our ups and downs they stayed loyal to us, and that just goes to show the character of some of the people in Iowa.”
That character is a result of the pride of Iowans. Naturally, the competitive nature of these programs has created in-state rivalries. Drake and Northern Iowa (UNI) have long been Missouri Valley Conference foes. On the men’s side, each program has made runs in the NCAA tournament, but never at the same time. Drake made its run in 2008, while UNI competed in 2010, 2015 and 2016. In these cases, Iowa pride trumped all. On the women’s side, Drake has made the NCAA tournament two years in a row, in 2017 and 2018. Iowa made the NCAA in 2016 and the NIT in 2017. Iowa State made the NCAA in 2015 and 2017.
“People in the state of Iowa really rally around their sports because of their pride for the state and their universities,” says Northern Iowa graduate and four-year pro Ali Farokhmanesh. “It is special because there are rivalries in the state between the schools, but all the fan base will rally around one another when they are having success. That makes it special.”
When you think of men’s and women’s college basketball in the Midwest, think of the state of Iowa, too. Iowa schools consistently play in the postseason. Of the thousands of D1 basketball roster spots filled each year, only 19 percent of men and 4.9 percent of women play some level of professional basketball after college according to the NCAA website. Drake, Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa combined have players at each professional level: NBA, G League, and overseas. The credibility of Iowa hoops is not in question, so sleep no more on Iowa’s Big Four.