Six Big Ten games left; time for Hawkeye hoops inventory
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Even after a disastrous four-day stretch, Iowa remains a fixture in most NCAA Tournament bracket projections.
But the margin for error has slimmed. With six Big Ten Conference games remaining and the Hawkeyes at 6-6, conventional wisdom says wins are needed in four of those to take guesswork out of what the tournament selection committee will unveil on Sunday, March 15.
Thursday's 7 p.m. game against Rutgers, which brings a nine-game losing streak into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and Sunday's at Nebraska are chances for the Hawkeyes to scrub away last week's pain.
Iowa lost to two below-.500 Big Ten teams — at home vs. Minnesota, then in overtime at previously-last-in-the-league Northwestern.
Iowa senior Aaron White wasn't showing any panic Wednesday afternoon.
"We had a bad week this week. But we had a great one the week before (beating Michigan and Maryland)," White said. "So let's make this one a great one again."
At the two-thirds mark of conference play, it's time for another installment of what we know and what we don't about the Hawkeyes:
We know: Jarrod Uthoff has become Iowa's crunch-time scoring option — he drained a winning jumper at Minnesota with 3.5 seconds left, and his leaning 3-pointer forced overtime at Northwestern.
Uthoff's comfort level has increased in his second year of college basketball as a fourth-year student — he sat out the first two seasons, one at Wisconsin then one at Iowa after transferring.
"He goes to college, he learns two offenses, doesn't play. … He was trying to put it all together in his mind," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "And you saw greatness, and you saw what I think would appear to be tentativeness at times (last year).
"I don't think you're seeing that this year because you're seeing a guy who is comfortable."
We don't know: If there's anything that rattles Uthoff.
"He doesn't seem to get caught up in anything," McCaffery said. "Trash talking, crowd, noise, score, time — nothing really affects him."
We know: McCaffery is prepared to play Gabe Olaseni more minutes against Rutgers. And if more minutes equals more scoring, that's a good thing for Iowa, which is 7-2 when the 6-foot-10 senior scores in double figures.
In Iowa's last four games, the distribution of minutes at center as been Adam Woodbury 105, Olaseni 56.
We don't know: When starting point guard Mike Gesell will be comfortable shooting 3-pointers. In the five games since he hyper-extended an elbow in practice, he's 0-for-5 from deep in 152 minutes.
Are teams using Gesell's limitation to their advantage defensively?
"His shooting percentage was just OK, anyway, prior to his injury," McCaffery said. "I think teams were playing him that way; as a driver, as a creator, as an intelligent point guard."
We know: Why leading scorer White was an uncharacteristic 1-for-12 from the field at Northwestern: He forced the action too much, rather than letting buckets come to him.
White said he was frustrated he didn't get the ball more often in the first half while roaming the baseline on offense.
"I missed a couple that I usually make, and that kind of got me frustrated. A couple of my shots were just ill-advised," White said. "I learned from it. I usually don't have nights like that. Usually, I pick my spots pretty smartly. That game I didn't."
We don't know: If Feb. 8 — a 71-55 rout of then-No. 17 Maryland that got Iowa to 6-4 in the Big Ten — will be viewed the Hawkeye high point for the second straight season. On Feb. 8, 2014, the Hawkeyes trounced then-No. 10 Michigan 85-67 but eventually lost seven of their last eight games.
The players insist this year's team is different, and the lessons of last year's slide have been learned.
"We try not to (think about last year)," Uthoff said. "That wasn't the best time.
"You've just got to battle through tough times. We can't let two losses turn into losing seven out of eight."
• Specifics — 7 p.m. Thursday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City.
• Following the game — TV: ESPNU. Radio: WHO-AM (1040), WMT-AM (600) and the Hawkeye network. Live scoring: livestats.hawkeyesports.com.
• Preview — These new Big Ten Conference foes have only met once — an 87-73 Iowa win in the 1989 NCAA Tournament in Providence, R.I. ... Since spraining his ankle following a nine-point, 16-rebound performance against Purdue, Iowa's Gabe Olaseni has averaged only 15.8 minutes a game but is shooting 13-for-18 (72.2 percent) in that stretch. "I think he should get more (minutes)," coach Fran McCaffery said Wednesday. "It's nothing that we are deliberately doing. He's ready to go."