IOWA CITY, Iowa – There is so much to like about the Iowa men’s basketball team right now.
From the dominance of Jarrod Uthoff to the pin-point shooting of Peter Jok to the floor leadership of Mike Gesell, Iowa is getting significant contributions from players who have to perform well in order for the team to be successful.
Senior center Adam Woodbury and senior guard Anthony Clemmons also fall into that category. All five of Iowa’s aforementioned starters are performing at a high level by their standards and are largely responsible for the team being 13-3 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten heading into Sunday’s game against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The emergence of walk-on freshman forward Nicholas Baer also has provided a boost, along with an inspirational story about believing in yourself and defying the odds.
Baer’s story has sort of overshadowed another key development, which is Dom Uhl’s expanded role off the bench.
The 6-foot-9 Uhl scored all 10 of his points in the first half of Thursday’s 76-59 victory over No. 4 Michigan State at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich. He also had five rebounds, including three on offense, against one of the best rebounding teams in the country.
“We thought when we signed him we had something special, and obviously, we do,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Uhl Friday on a teleconference. “He’s got a unique game. I thought his activity level (against Michigan State), his tip-ins, I mean they were special. When you’re in that environment and you’re getting put-backs, they’re a team that expects to get put-backs. So we’re getting offensive rebound put-backs because of him.”
Uhl and Baer have sort of taken turns playing the role of Iowa’s sixth man. They both played 17 minutes against Michigan State, which hadn’t lost to Iowa at the Breslin Center since 1993.
Uhl showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman last season, but not enough to where he ever became a key part of the rotation. He has more than tripled his scoring average from 1.9 points per game last season to 7.4 this season.
Uhl gives Iowa versatility on both ends of the floor. He can play either forward position in addition to center. He handles the ball effectively and shoots well from perimeter, having made 16-of-31 3-point attempts this season.
“He spreads the floor and the stretches the defense because even if he’s at (power forward) that’s one thing,” McCaffery said. “But if he’s at (center), now he’s pulling the (center) away and he’s shooting threes, which is a game changer.”
A native of Frankfurt, Germany, the soft-spoken Uhl finished high school in New Jersey. He picked Iowa over at least 10 other scholarship offers from schools that included Maryland, Miami (Fla.), Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, George Mason and Temple.
“I couldn’t be happier for him and I’m very proud of him because he’s really worked hard to get his game to where it is,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery has had seasons in which he has used a 10-man rotation on a regular basis at Iowa. He doesn’t have that luxury this season, with six first-year players on the roster, including five freshman.
So it’s important that the players who get significant minutes off the bench perform well on a regular basis.
Uhl and Baer have met that challenge, but the Hawkeyes needed some additional help against Michigan State after Gesell picked up two early fouls in the first half.
Seldom-used freshman guard Christian Williams only played four minutes off the bench against the Spartans, but he grabbed one rebound and had a key assist.
Redshirt freshman guard Brady Ellingson and freshman forward Ahmad Wagner also played 10 and four minutes, respectively, against Michigan State.
“You just have to be able to get those top five guys to the finish line without wearing them out,” McCaffery said. “But at the same time, you have to get production off your bench.
“You can’t ask for any more than Dom Uhl has given us. I think Brady Ellingson has been real solid. I think Nicholas Baer has been spectacular as well. Ahmad Wagner is doing everything that you ask him to do and you can see him getting better and better. And getting Christian Williams in the game last night was key because he gives you a defender, he gives you length. But he can also play the point.”
As important as Uhl’s role is now, he will have more responsibility after the current senior class moves on. Uhl should be one of Iowa’s go-to players next season, if he isn’t already.