Why beating Ohio State changes everything for Hawkeyes
COLUMBUS, Ohio – There was a lot to like about Iowa's 71-65 win at No. 20 Ohio State on Tuesday.
Sure, it was just the first of 18 games in the Big Ten Conference grind.
Yeah, anyone can beat anyone over 40 minutes (cue obligatory references to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Incarnate Word).
But while being careful not to put too much stock into one victory, the truth is: This victory meant a lot for the Hawkeyes' 2014-15 fortunes.
Let us count the ways.
That's two on the road
When ESPN puts up that graphic identifying "quality wins" for NCAA Tournament bubble teams as March approaches, Iowa already has two in its column.
Both occurred in intimidating venues. The first, Dec. 3, came by a 60-55 count over North Carolina in the famous Dean Smith Center. This one was at Value City Arena, where Ohio State had been 99-8 since the 2009-10 season.
Iowa is the only team nationally with two road wins over top-20 teams. That's eye-opening.
"If you're going to be a good team in this league and be an NCAA Tournament team, that's what you've got to be able to do," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Confidence levels are up
Iowa players are well aware of the critique outlined by North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll, who said Dec. 22 that Hawkeye players needed to grow thicker skin. They heard it. They know articles have been written about confidence issues.
They chuckled following Tuesday's win when asked about Driscoll's observations.
Aaron White said, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to point that out."
Mike Gesell said, "I've honestly never seen a coach do that before, go through our whole team. But I think there was some truth in what he was saying."
Beating Ohio State has to help scrub the December losses to Iowa State and Northern Iowa from memories — and any accompanying self-doubt. Not to mention, the collapse of last year's team is fading. This is a different team.
The versatility is apparent
When Iowa can't shoot, it's a long team that is forced to grind out wins with defense (like it did at North Carolina). When Iowa can, it looks downright dangerous. That was an aspect easily lost in Driscoll's comments — how he observed the Hawkeyes had the potential to be "scary" good.
The Ohio State game showed that, with Peter Jok hitting shots early, Josh Oglesby late and Jarrod Uthoff throughout. Plus, all the usual Iowa stuff — White dunks, strong post defense from Gabe Olaseni and Adam Woodbury, and high-end free-throw accuracy.
More than confidence, White said the key to unlocking Iowa's success is trusting teammates. A year ago, Iowa had one leader in Devyn Marble. When things are right with this team, there are options all over the floor.
"If we play together and we buy into the game plan, we're going to win a lot of games," White said. "We've got a good team. We've got a lot of guys that can do different things."
The Uthoff graph trends up
If White is the face of this team, Uthoff might be the crucial play-maker.
The junior's last two games have been two of his best as a Hawkeye — averages of 14 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 34.5 minutes. He's also a pest for opposing perimeter shooters.
"He's capable of doing that every night," Gesell said. "He's a special player. He's a matchup nightmare."
With Jok playing more at the 2 guard, Uthoff is getting almost every minute at the 3. And he's increased his aggression. The contested 19-footer he drained in the late moments of Tuesday's win epitomized what he can be for Iowa.
"He typically doesn't get rattled by anything. By virtue of how aggressive he was, to me, that's what he needs to be," McCaffery said. "He could be a special player in this league."
Schedule more manageable
Take this with a grain of salt, but it is the Ken Pomeroy. Before the Ohio State game, the kenpom.com website developed by the trusted basketball stats guru had Iowa going 2-7 in the first half of the Big Ten season. By early Wednesday, that projection was up to 6-3, according to game-by-game matchups. The Hawkeyes jumped from 40th to 33rd in Pomeroy's national rankings.
They're only numbers, you say. But they could be important numbers. Suddenly, Iowa is viewed as being able to compete against a brutal first-half schedule that includes two Wisconsins, two Ohio States, a Nebraska, a Michigan State, and road games at Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan.
"We've got to do it again, and again," McCaffery said. "We've got another really good team coming to our place (Nebraska, on Monday). When you look at our first 7-8 games, each one is really, really difficult."
White, a self-described basketball nerd, is aware of the challenges ahead — and how perception-wise, the back half of Iowa's schedule eases up.
"It's tough to win on the road in this league," White said. "To get one early gives us a little confidence."