McCaffery's Hawkeyes enter top 25 for first time this season

Chad Leistikow
The Hawkeyes are probably going to get more attention in the media and from opponents with a national ranking.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Iowa plays Nebraska at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, it will have a number before its name for the first time in a year.

The 11-3 Hawkeyes, unsurprisingly after last week’s wins over then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 14 Purdue, broke into the top 25 in both the Associated Press and USA TODAY Coaches' polls. In the AP poll, Iowa rose to No. 19, while the Hawkeyes were voted No. 23 by the coaches.

“You can’t worry about being ranked now," Hawkeye star Jarrod Uthoff said. "It only counts at the end of the year.”

The Hawkeyes' last coaches' ranking was 25th, on Nov.17, 2014. But after starting 2-0, Iowa lost back-to-back games to Texas and Syracuse in the 2K Classic in New York City and didn't return.

The last time the Hawkeyes were in the AP Top 25, their stay lasted just one week. Iowa jumped into the Jan. 19, 2015, poll at 25th after a 4-1 start in Big Ten Conference play. In its next game, Iowa began a three-game losing streak with an 82-50 shellacking at Wisconsin.

Are these Hawkeyes Big Ten basketball title contenders?

“It changes things a little bit. People want to beat ranked opponents,” said sixth-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose 2013-14 team climbed as high as 10th in the AP poll. “It’s talked about a lot more. It has more impact in terms of how you’re viewed at the end of the season. There’s a lot more that goes into when you prepare for the next game, you make sure everyone knows and understands that we’re going to be looked at a little bit differently.”

The first opponent to test the Hawkeyes’ ranking are the 8-7 Cornhuskers, who got off to a slow Big Ten start with home losses to Northwestern (by nine) and Indiana (by 10). Iowa swept Nebraska a year ago; this is the only time the teams are scheduled to meet this season.

Clemmons a game-time decision

That's how McCaffery assessed the Tuesday status of senior guard Anthony Clemmons, who has started every game this season but suffered a hip pointer late in Iowa's 70-63 win at Purdue on Saturday.

"I think he will (play). Hasn't been determined yet," McCaffery said. "He's feeling a little better than he did (Sunday)."

Iowa's best defensive player is averaging 8.1 points and 3.9 assists per game. He's also the backup point guard when Mike Gesell goes to the bench.

McCaffery said freshman Christian Williams would get backup point-guard minutes if Clemmons can't play, with freshman shooting guard Andrew Fleming also a possibility to see more action.

Baer continues to defy odds

Walk-on Nicholas Baer has been dynamic off the bench during Iowa's four-game winning streak with averages of 12.5 points,5.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in 22.5 minutes, He's certainly shown up on scouting reports by now.

"I'm not too worried about that," the freshman said. "I'm not going to change anything. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."

Baer was thrown into the fire with junior college transfer Dale Jones (knee) out for  the season and Uthoff finding foul trouble against Drake and Michigan State. Now he's just a regular contributor in McCaffery's nine-man rotation.

"Teams have enough film on Baer now to scheme what they would like to do defensively against him," McCaffery said. "But the thing about him is he just has great feel, so he's not going to force the issue.

"He shoots open shots. If there's space, he drives it. If he's covered, he moves it on. He flies to the glass. He guards his man. He knows where to go."