Why Iowa's Mike Gesell is playing better since elbow injury

Chad Leistikow

Iowa’s Mike Gesell (10) penetrates the lane during a 71-55 win over Maryland, in which he recorded a career-best nine assists. Gesell is averaging 8.5 points and 3.5 assists in Big Ten play.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Mike Gesell, all 6-foot-2 of him, looked to be in an impossible spot. As he drove toward the basket, he was greeted by one of the nation's best college basketball players, nimble 7-footer Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin.

The Iowa point guard shot-faked to his right, then circled left around Kaminsky to score two pretty points with his left hand in that Jan. 31 loss.

"I was joking with him," Iowa senior Aaron White was saying, "I don't think you would have made that play if your arm would've felt good. I think you would've attacked that right side."

White was referencing Gesell's hyperextended right (shooting) elbow that he injured during a Jan. 26 practice. Gesell has worn a protective wrap in Iowa's past three games, but remarkably, his play hasn't been slowed.

Some might say Gesell is performing at the highest level of his three-year Hawkeye career.

"It sounds crazy," White said, "but I think it's brought the best out of him. He's using his mind more."

Gesell was a catalyst for two of the Hawkeyes' most impressive victories of the season last week.

He shot 7-of-10 from the floor in a 72-54 romp at Michigan. He shot 4-for-5 with a career-high nine assists in a 71-55 home rout of then-No. 17 Maryland.

Beyond the stats, he showed awareness and ability to do whatever Iowa needed — be it setting up the motion offense or hustling upcourt to find White or Jarrod Uthoff in transition. That wasn't always the case earlier in the year, when Gesell was dogged by inconsistent shooting and end-of-first-half miscues.

"I feel like when I'm being aggressive at the point guard position, it opens so much for the other guys," Gesell said.

One of the things the elbow injury restricts is Gesell's shooting range. He's passing up 3-pointers in lieu of extra ball movement and dribble-drive penetration. Iowa scored 42 points in the paint at Michigan and 38 vs. Maryland.

Gesell grinned after being informed of a teammate's assertion that the restriction has helped his game.

"I've been getting to my mid-range shot, and I've been getting to the basket," said Gesell, who is shooting 51.4 percent during Big Ten Conference play. "(Sunday), a lot of guys were collapsing in on me and I was able to hit some kick-outs for 3s. I think it really has helped my game a little bit."

Backcourt play was a huge concern for this team entering the season. The way Gesell has played of late, along with the emergence of shooting guard Peter Jok, it's become a strength.

"I think that's critical for any offense," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, "if you have a guy who can break the defense down and create shot opportunities for other people."

To be clear, Gesell was doing good things before the elbow injury. He delivered late in Iowa's 60-55 signature win Dec. 3 at North Carolina. When White went down with a stinger injury in the loss at Purdue, it was Gesell who rallied the Hawkeyes into the lead with 12 consecutive points.

"This is the time of the year we can't leave anything out there on the court," the third-year starter said. "That's what I've been trying to do. I feel like I've been doing a much better job of being a leader for this team lately."