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Fran McCaffery says his sophomore point guard is playing like a veteran

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The biggest test of Christian Williams’ young career comes Thursday night.

Iowa’s sophomore point guard has been praised this season for being more confident, more aggressive, more capable.

Seton Hall will be the judge of all that.

“They’re a really physical team that will try to get up into you, try to force you to make turnovers and try to play crazy,” Williams said Wednesday. “We’re going to try to play calm as much as possible.”

The Pirates and Hawkeyes are both 2-0 heading into the 8 p.m. matchup at Carver-Hawkeye Arena that will be televised by the Big Ten Network. Neither has played a major-conference opponent, however. So this will be the first barometer for a pair of markedly different teams that both reached the NCAA Tournament last spring.

Seton Hall returns four starters from a 25-9 squad. The Hawkeyes have only Peter Jok back in the starting lineup after going 22-11 a year ago.

Nowhere is the contrast starker than at point guard. The Pirates added Madison Jones as a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, a pesky veteran who recorded 34 steals two years ago but missed last season after being dismissed from the Demon Deacons.

Williams sat behind two veteran point guards last season, appearing in 20 games and scoring only 24 points. In his first two games as a starter last week, he had nine assists against two turnovers. That was promising, but this game will be punishing.

“Sometimes I want him to be more selfish and look for himself a little bit more,” McCaffery said of Williams, who scored five points in the opening two games. “He's played like a veteran, even though he doesn't have a ton of experience.”

Williams threw down a highlight-reel alley-oop dunk in Iowa’s season-opening win, an early sign that he will be more than a facilitator. But it came with a price — he aggravated a lingering back injury in the process and had to sit for most of the second half. Williams said he’s been dealing with sporadic back tightness since the summer, but is nearly 100 percent and will be fine to play Thursday.

That’s good news for his teammates. Iowa’s only other point guard is freshman Jordan Bohannon, who is averaging six points and 4.5 assists but would be hard-pressed to handle the bulk of the minutes against a Seton Hall team that starts four juniors and Jones.

“He’s become a lot more aggressive as of late. The more aggressive he gets, the better I think we’ll be,” Hawkeyes forward Tyler Cook said of Williams. “A lot of times he’s going to be bigger than other guards, so he can drive and get layups for himself, take open shots.”

Williams, at 6-foot-5, is three inches taller than Jones. That will be a familiar advantage for him. He’s more athletic and versatile than last year’s point-guard tandem of Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons. But he doesn’t have nearly their experience.

Williams is drawing on the leadership skills he developed as a quarterback from age 5 until he gave up football — with some prodding from his mother, Marla — to concentrate on basketball. He also got a pep talk in the offseason from assistant coach Kirk Speraw. The message: Believe in yourself.

“I kind of like to find other guys before myself. But they told me that if I want to be a pretty good player and kind of keep the defense on their toes, then I’ve got to find my own shot, too,” said Williams, a native of Decatur, Ill.

“That’s what I kind of leaned on in high school when other guys weren’t making shots. I kind of had to take over the game.”

Thursday’s matchup is part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games between Big East and Big Ten teams. The eight-game series is named after Dave Gavitt, who founded the Big East. Last season, Iowa won at Marquette in a Gavitt battle.

The Jones-Williams duel will be pivotal to the outcome, but certainly not the marquee pairing.

Jok, a senior shooting guard averaging 20 points per game, will contend with Seton Hall’s Khadeen Carrington. Carrington has made 9 of his 10 3-pointers this season and is scoring 22.5 points a contest.

“I think both of them realize that they’re going to have to work to guard the other guy. They’re both being asked by their team to score,” McCaffery said. “And I think that’s the challenge for anybody in that position, that sort of views themselves as an NBA prospect. You’ve got to play both ends.”

Iowa is expected to have senior forward Dale Jones available for the first time this season. He missed the first two games when his knee swelled after offseason surgery.

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