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The Iowa freshman has become a key bench player for Fran McCaffery.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ahmad Wagner’s first career basket in Big Ten Conference play was a perfect reflection of his growing confidence.

After Iowa had seen its early 11-0 lead against Michigan turn into a 21-20 deficit, the sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd was a little restless. Wagner then made himself perhaps an unlikely — but certainly not timid — man to the rescue.

The freshman spun inside and made a power move to score with 7 minutes, 11 seconds left in the first half for a 22-21 lead. The Hawkeyes wouldn’t trail the rest of the half.

“If you have a lane, you’ve got to take it,” the 6-foot-7 product of Yellow Springs, Ohio, said.

Wagner finished with five points in Sunday’s 82-71 win — four more than the he scored combined in spot duty in Iowa’s first four Big Ten games. He’s forced his way into Fran McCaffery’s rotation with defense and hustle plays.

“I couldn't be more proud of Ahmad Wagner right now. He played like a veteran,” McCaffery said. “Defensively, he was always over the place, and when you're in the ‘5’ (center) spot and in a zone you have to be the guy that's communicating. And that's what he did. But he also played with the necessary activity level that you need against a team that spreads you out and shoots 3s the way they do.”

Wagner rotated between the 3, 4 and 5 spots Sunday and ended with three rebounds in 11 minutes without a turnover. He also played four solid minutes in Thursday’s road win at No. 4 Michigan State, with two rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.

“Just being out there now, every Big Ten game, I’ve been getting minutes here and there — it’s just been helping me,” Wagner said. “Slowly and surely, I’m becoming more comfortable. I’m happy about that.”

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About that bench

McCaffery heard about Michigan coach John Beilein raving about Iowa’s senior leadership. And certainly the sixth-year Hawkeye coach isn’t going to dispute the way Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury are playing right now.

But he also added an important caveat in Sunday’s postgame news conference.

“Everybody keeps talking about the experience and obviously they're our key guys,” McCaffery said. “But we wouldn't be sitting where we are if we weren't getting unbelievable play from (Dom) Uhl, Wagner, (Brady) Ellingson, Nicholas Baer, and before that, (out-for-the-year forward) Dale Jones.”

Uhl was again fantastic for the Hawkeyes, with 10 points in 20 minutes. The 6-foot-8 sophomore made both of his 3-point attempts and is hitting a remarkable 54.5 percent (18-for-33) from deep this season.

In a defensive zone

Although Michigan hit 10 3-pointers Sunday, it took 28 attempts (35.7 percent). Not a bad percentage, but not great, either — and the Hawkeyes have a switch to a 3-2 zone to, in part, thank for it.

McCaffery switched to the zone — not normally conventional wisdom against a sharp outside-shooting team like Michigan, which entered with 42.6-percent accuracy from 3-point range. Marksman Duncan Robinson, who entered with a scalding 55.7 percent rate (59-for-106), was held to 2-for-8 from 3.

Long defenders like Uthoff and Baer had a hand, literally, in bothering Robinson’s attempts to get open.

“What it enables you to do is kind of keep everything in front of you,” McCaffery said. “So you can kind of look, OK, where's Robinson? Where is (Aubrey) Dawkins? Where is (Muhammad-Ali) Abdur-Rahkman. Where's (Zak) Irvin?

“A good offensive team attacking zone will get behind you. And we did a very poor job of this when they were running cutters and running people along the baseline. Much better job in the second half. … So the zone was very effective. And then we were also able to run out of it.”

The goofy ringleader

Iowa certainly could have experienced a bit of a Michigan State hangover, playing less than 72 hours after ending the program’s 18-game losing streak at the Breslin Center.

So what did Iowa do? It jumped out to an 11-0 lead against Michigan on Sunday — which happened to be the margin of victory.

"They were professional, as you would have expected them to be," McCaffery said. "But how can you not get ready to play Michigan on television in front of a full house? I mean, that shouldn't be hard."

The Hawkeyes are a loose, confident team right now with Uthoff — averaging 18.6 points a game — showing the way.

“There’s a lot of goofing around and a very relaxed atmosphere — a lot of it coming from me being so goofy — but we’re serious at the same time,” Uthoff said. “When work needs to be done, we know when to do it.”

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