IOWA CITY, Iowa – To sort of borrow a line from former NFL coach Dennis Green, the Iowa men’s basketball team is what I thought it would be heading into Big Ten play.
The 9-3 Hawkeyes aren’t an elite team, at least not yet, but they have shown enough firepower on offense and enough toughness and desire on defense to believe that a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament is within reach.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said after Tuesday’s 85-63 victory over Tennessee Tech in the final non-conference game of the season. “We’re taking care of the ball. I think our shot selection is good, our ball movement is good.
“We got a lot of different guys producing. I think that, ultimately, I feel pretty good.”
Iowa will be tested right out of the gate against top-ranked Michigan State in the Big Ten opener next Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Spartans will likely be without star senior guard Denzel Valentine because of an injury, but they still are a serious threat.
Four days later, Iowa will face Purdue on Jan. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind. The Boilermakers have established themselves as one of the Big Ten’s top three teams at this stage, along with Michigan State and Maryland.
“No breaks,” said Iowa senior guard Anthony Clemmons. “But that’s what the conference is. You can go all the way down to the bottom and you have to be ready and prepared each and every night.
“It’s a blessing to be in the Big Ten. It’s what everybody has worked for.”
The Big Ten can be broken into three groups, led by the aforementioned triumvirate of Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue.
The second tier has Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, but the Badgers are hanging by a thread.
That leaves six teams in the lower third tier: Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers.
Clemmons is right to say that every Big Ten team is dangerous, especially on its home floor. But the conference doesn’t seem to have as much quality depth as previous seasons.
So with four senior starters, Iowa should win enough conference games to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, barring injuries. I had the Hawkeyes winning 10 or 11 conference games before the season and nothing has happened to change that opinion.
Senior forward Jarrod Uthoff is proving to be one of the Big Ten’s best players, while senior point guard Mike Gesell is playing with poise and precision.
Throw in 7-foot-1 senior center Adam Woodbury, 6-6 swingman Peter Jok, along with Clemmons, and Iowa has a solid group of veteran players leading the way.
Uthoff, Woodbury, Gesell, Clemmons and Jok all played key roles last season when the Hawkeyes finished in third place in the Big Ten at 12-6 and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2001.
So it’s reasonable to think as a group they could do something similar this season.
Replacing all-Big Ten forward Aaron White and top reserve center Gabe Olaseni hasn’t been easy, but there is enough talent and experience to still be effective without them.
Probably the biggest difference between last season and this season is that the current Iowa team doesn’t have as much proven depth.
Three of the six newcomers on the roster are currently unavailable to play, while the other three have played sparingly.
Junior college transfer Dale Jones, a 6-8 forward, is lost for the season with a knee injury, while true freshmen wing players Isaiah Moss and Brandon Hutton are being redshirted this season.
That leaves three freshmen – forward Ahmad Wagner and guards Christian Williams and Andrew Fleming – as the only newcomers to help contribute off bench.
But so far, their contributions have been few and far between.
That’s why the emergence of redshirt freshman forward Nicholas Baer has been huge. The Bettendorf native has scored in double figures in each of the past two games and he gives Iowa a versatile performer off the bench.
Sophomore forward Dom Uhl also has shown moments of brilliance, but still is inconsistent. He has scored in double figures in four games this season, but also has scored fewer than five points in five games, including twice being held scoreless.
Redshirt freshman guard Brady Ellingson gives Iowa a perimeter shooting threat off the bench. He has made 10-of-31 3-point shots this season and is one of four players on the team with at least 10 3-point baskets.
Jok leads the team with 26 3-point baskets, followed by Uthoff with 24 and Baer with 14.
“We’ve got so many guys who can shoot and we can really spread the floor,” said Gesell, who leads Iowa with an average of 7.0 assists per game. “I think that opens things up.”
Gesell thinks this could be the best shooting team during his four seasons at Iowa. Losing Jones was a critical blow because he’s a capable 3-point shooter.
But there still are at least five or six players on the team who can make 3-point shots. The hope is with that many shooters Iowa will avoid having long scoring droughts, which have plagued some of McCaffery’s previous teams.
The first two conference games against Michigan State and Purdue won’t determine Iowa’s season, but they will tell us a lot about Iowa’s potential.
Being tested right out of the gate has risks and rewards.
“You got to play those people at some point,” McCaffery said. “You play them early; you play them late; you play them in the middle; you space it out better. Does it really matter?”
Only time will tell.