No. 9 Iowa men could do something rare on Sunday
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Jarrod Uthoff probably couldn’t care less, but the Iowa men’s basketball team has a chance to do something on Sunday that hasn’t been accomplished in 46 years.
A victory over Purdue would give Iowa a 7-0 record in the Big Ten for the first time since Ralph Miller’s legendary “Six Pack” finished 14-0 in conference play during the 1969-70 season.
Nobody is ready to compare the current Iowa team to the Six Pack, which set a Big Ten record for scoring average (102.9) that still stands today despite having no 3-point shot at the time and despite only having a nucleus of six players.
And that’s just fine with the soft-spoken Uthoff, who said he couldn’t care less when No. 9 Iowa cracked the top 10 or when he scored his 1,000th career point against Rutgers on Thursday.
Uthoff has made it clear that he only cares about the final rankings. He and his teammates are too immersed in the journey to worry about the destination.
And that’s how it should be.
Let the fans and the media make a big deal about individual and team milestones, while the players focus solely on the next challenge.
Iowa’s next challenge is a Purdue squad that features arguably the top center combination in collegiate basketball in 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons and 7-2, 297-pound Isaac Haas.
It’s probably too early to call Sunday’s game as must-win for the Boilermakers. But then again, a loss would complete a season sweep for the Hawkeyes and would drop Purdue three games behind Iowa in the Big Ten standings.
Iowa overcame a 17-point halftime deficit to defeat Purdue 70-63 on Jan. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind. The Hawkeyes outscored Purdue 50-26 in the second half of the first game.
The 3-point shot is likely to play a significant role in Sunday’s game. It has been key weapon for both teams, but so far, Iowa has been more consistent from 3-point range.
The Hawkeyes are ranked third in the Big Ten in 3-point field-goal percentage at 40.3 percent, having made 165-of-409 attempts.
Purdue is ranked eighth at 35.5 percent, converting on 164 of 462 attempts. Purdue has made one fewer trey than Iowa has this season despite having played in two more games.
“When they’re making threes, there really almost impossible to beat because they mix it out and in,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Purdue. “I think they’re getting good play from a lot of different people.”
So is McCaffery.
His four senior starters have played with precision and poise throughout the season, while junior Peter Jok has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best perimeter shooters.
Iowa is also getting solid contributions off the bench from sophomore forward Dom Uhl, redshirt freshman forward Nicholas Baer and freshman forward Ahmad Wagner. Baer and Uhl scored seven and six points, respectively, in the first game against Purdue. Baer also had four rebounds and two blocks, while Uhl made two of his three attempts from 3-point range.
Iowa struggled at times against lowly Rutgers on Thursday, but still left Piscataway, N.J. with a double-digit Big Ten victory on the road, winning 90-76 against an opponent that was a 22.5-point underdog.
Uthoff is arguably the leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year at this stage, even though he probably couldn’t care less. The 6-foot-9 senior leads the Big Ten in scoring and blocks with per-game averages of 18.7 and 3.1, respectively.
Uthoff is the only player in the nation with at least 335 points, 110 rebounds and 55 blocks this season.
Senior point guard Mike Gesell also has developed into a reliable floor general. Even without scoring, Gesell has learned how to impact a game.
He was held scoreless at Rutgers on Thursday, but compensated by dishing out nine assists. Gesell is ranked second in the Big Ten in assists with a 7.0 per-game average.
“I think what you’re seeing is his mistakes have declined considerably over the years,” McCaffery said. “And you would think that would happen as a player gets more experience. But with him, it’s been incredibly noticeable.”
Iowa’s improvement as a team also has been incredibly noticeable, but it takes much less time to lose momentum than to gain it.
A loss to Purdue would put more pressure on Iowa to win at seventh-ranked Maryland on Thursday. That’s why McCaffery always stresses living in the moment because he knows the best way to prepare for the future is to handle the present.
Purdue at Iowa
When: 12:06 p.m. Sunday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Records/rankings: Purdue is 17-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big Ten and ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll. Iowa is 15-3, 6-0 in the Big Ten and ranked ninth in the AP poll.
On a roll: Iowa has won 12 consecutive Big Ten Conference games dating back to last season. It’s Iowa’s longest winning streak in conference play since the 1969-70 team finished 14-0.