Are these Hawkeyes Big Ten basketball title contenders?

Chad Leistikow
Veteran Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, right, thinks Fran McCaffery, left, has his best team in six years at Iowa.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The dean of Big Ten Conference coaches says absolutely, Iowa is a league championship contender. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, in fact, thinks this is Fran McCaffery’s best team in six years at the Hawkeye helm.

Izzo had a firsthand look at why newly-ranked Iowa is forcing its way into the conference-title conversation. His then-No. 1 Spartans, playing without star Denzel Valentine, lost at Iowa last Tuesday, 83-70. The Hawkeyes validated that win by overcoming a 17-point halftime deficit to win in Mackey Arena for the first time in 10 years, beating then-No. 14 Purdue, 70-63.

“(Mike) Gesell really went off against us. We do a good job on (Jarrod) Uthoff, and Gesell gets you. You do a good job on Gesell, and (Peter) Jok gets you,” Izzo said. “They’ve got more than a few players now, and (McCaffery) does a heck of a job coaching them."

The caveat has to be mentioned early that we’re only two games along into an 18-game regular-season slate. But as Izzo put it, “You beat Michigan State, you beat Purdue; those are two contenders. That makes you an automatic contender whether (McCaffery) likes it or not.”

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

In addition to a No. 19 ranking in Monday’s Associated Press poll and an RPI of 16, Iowa carries a “we-haven’t-done-anything-yet” mentality into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. game against Nebraska.

At the same time, the Hawkeyes believe they’re as good as anyone.

“If you don’t come into the season thinking you’re going to win the Big Ten, why even play?” star forward Jarrod Uthoff said.

Added fourth-year point guard Mike Gesell: “We know what this team is capable of. We feel like the sky’s the limit for this team, as long as we can put it all together and really defend.”

Iowa hasn’t won a regular-season Big Ten title since Lute Olson’s 1978-79 team tied for first with Purdue and Michigan State with a 13-5 league record. It’s more challenging to win a title nowadays, with a 14-team conference. It’s as unlikely that 13-5 will win the league as it is that the Hawkeyes will go 18-0.

“Nothing is as good as it seems, nothing is as bad as it seems,” Uthoff said. “Just keep an even keel throughout the season. If we end up losing a couple times, we lose a couple times. If we win out, we win out.”

Here are five major factors that will determine whether Iowa — predicted to finish ninth by a Big Ten Network panel in the preseason — has a chance to make it to the 18th-game finish line as an unlikely league champion:

Maintaining momentum

Did you know Iowa has actually won eight consecutive regular-season Big Ten games? That factors in last year’s 6-0 finish that resulted in a third-place tie with Michigan State and Purdue at 12-6.

Boilermakers coach Matt Painter thinks the 2015-16 Hawkeyes built off that finish.

“I think sometimes when that happens, you can really use that to get your next conference season (going) when you have a lot of returners coming back,” Painter said.

Nebraska knows it could be running into a buzz saw Tuesday night. The Cornhuskers experienced some of Iowa’s best ball a year ago in a 74-46 loss in Lincoln.

“Last year it seemed like they had more firepower, you know? This year, I think they’re confident,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “They’re oozing confidence right now, it looks like to me. They’re playing to it, and guys are knocking down shots.”

Scoring anytime from anywhere

The biggest difference in these Hawkeyes over last year is an ability to score from 3-point range. Iowa is not only converting more 3-pointers over last year (9.1 per game vs. 5.6 — that’s 10.5 additional points per game), it’s succeeding at a much higher percentage (39.8 vs. 33.3).

The Hawkeyes’ success rate from deep ranks third in the Big Ten. Making them fits their up-tempo style and gives Iowa a better chance to come back from deficits –— as evidenced by Saturday’s showing in West Lafayette, Ind.

After scoring 20 points in the first half, Iowa reeled off 50 in the second — while shooting 64.3 percent.

“Anytime you can get a road win in the Big Ten, it’s awesome. Especially against a team like that and the way we did,” Gesell said. “I’ve honestly never been a part of the game like that, and it was a lot of fun.”

So many good teams

Even though Izzo’s Spartans rose to No. 1, Mark Turgeon’s third-ranked Maryland team has been viewed as the Big Ten favorite. The 13-1 Terrapins’ only loss came at preseason No. 1 North Carolina, and they’re taking care of business behind elite guard Melo Trimble. Iowa only plays Maryland once — at College Park on Jan. 28. A win or loss there is essentially a two-game swing in the standings.

Maryland and Iowa are two of the Big Ten’s five 2-0 league teams. As a whole, the league started slowly with some bad nonconference losses. But it won the challenge against the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Ohio State represents that ascent better than anyone. The Buckeyes lost to Texas-Arlington, but later beat then-No. 4 Kentucky, a Final Four team last season.

“I think our league’s just growing up here. As the season goes on … you see teams kind of getting better,” Turgeon said. “Whether it’s Iowa, whether it’s Michigan … we’re getting a lot better. Michigan State will continue to grow.

“I think the league’s good. I think we can get seven or eight teams in (the NCAA Tournament) again. The next two months, we’re just going to beat up on each other.”

Surviving the grind

The Hawkeyes have remained relatively healthy this season, with only one starter (Jok, for one game) lost to an injury. Guard Anthony Clemmons could miss Tuesday’s game with a hip pointer.

By contrast, Michigan State (with maybe the nation’s top player in Valentine) and Michigan (with star Caris LeVert “day-to-day,” according to coach John Beilein) are trying to survive until their stars come back. Getting through an 18-game grind is so much harder than it sounds.

“It’s a long season. (McCaffery) knows it, we know it,” Izzo said. “Maintaining a level of high performance is hard for all of us.”

But even though none of these players have gone deep into the season contending for a Big Ten title, it does have battle-tested experience. The Hawkeyes start four seniors and a junior, all of whom were major contributors to a 6-3 road record in the Big Ten a year ago.

“The guys that have been here have that mentality, that we can win on the road at any place,” senior center Adam Woodbury said. “Hostile environments, we play in them all the time. I think we’re showing the young guys that have never been there before that they can do it as well.”

The first-half schedule

It’s too early to make any conclusive evaluations. Painter had a great answer about that — while also pointing out that Iowa’s 2-0 is better than anyone’s 2-0 to date.

“It’s not enough data to really take a snapshot of what’s going on,” Painter said. “I always think the midpoint of the conference season is a good time to gauge. Who’s had a tough first nine games vs. their second nine games? Who’s kind of even where they are, where their record is? Who’s injured? That’s always a big piece. Who can stay healthy? Who can get a break here and there to try and push themselves a slot (ahead) in the standings?”

Iowa’s evaluation could get more conclusive after its eighth Big Ten game. At that point, Iowa will have faced Michigan State twice, Purdue twice, Maryland and Michigan.

So far, so good for the Hawkeyes, though.

“They’re kind of doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” McCaffery said. “They’re playing intelligently, they’re sharing the ball, they’re defending. They understand the grind of what this league is. But it’s still early. There’s a lot of grind left. Ultimately, we need our bench guys to continue to improve, which they’ve done, and continue to produce, which they’ve done. Who knows what the ceiling is? It’s just every day, coming to work and trying to get better.”


Who: Nebraska (8-7, 0-2) at No. 19 Iowa (11-3, 2-0)

When, where: 8 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City

TV: Big Ten Network

Quick hits: The first 1,500 fans will receive an Adam Woodbury bobblehead. This is the last of the four seniors to have their giveaway this season. ... Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff ranks second in the Big Ten in points per game (18.1) and first in blocks per game (3.3). Uthoff needs 72 points to reach 1,000 for his career. ... Fran McCaffery is again involved in the national Infiniti Coaches' Charity Challenge. For 10 weeks, 48 coaches compete in a round-robin bracket to win $100,000 for charity. McCaffery's charity this year is the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. Vote in the bracket at