IOWA CITY, Ia. — At 5 o’clock on a September morning, Iowa basketball players found themselves in hand-to-hand combat with special-forces members of the U.S. military.
It was quite the preseason training exercise authorized by coach Fran McCaffery, bringing in a few Navy SEALs to work with his team.
“Barely any sleep, we were all kind of mad,” point guard Mike Gesell said. “Even right after, I don’t think we thought it helped all that much. But looking back on it, it was an awesome experience.”
How much toughness actually bled into the Hawkeye roster after that two-day training program? Who knows, but certainly this ninth-ranked Iowa team rates high on the toughness-meter, with Michigan State Tom Izzo conceding the tougher team won both meetings between the Hawkeyes — off to a 5-0 Big Ten Conference start — and Spartans.
After an intense evening workout at Kinnick Stadium — focused on core work and completing tasks as a team — Hawkeye players set their alarms for 4 a.m. the next morning. Gesell would call it “one of the most insane workouts I’ve ever been through.”
The Iowa point guard thinks it helped bring the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes closer together.
Iowa players would put on full gear, and a clock was set. Everyone, including walk-ons, would shuttle in and out to actually fight the SEALs. If a player wasn’t engaging fully, a penalty was assessed. Ten penalties before the time elapsed, and the whole team had to run sprints.
Let’s just say Iowa got its conditioning work in that day.
After each failure, the players had a chance to huddle up and form a new strategy.
“They talked to us about not necessarily working harder, it’s about working smarter — figuring out a way to beat them,” Gesell said. “We came up with a lot better strategy as we (went) along.”
As Gesell mentioned, the players look back on it now as being a positive team-building exercise — especially with a roster that includes four senior starters and six newcomers.
McCaffery first got the idea from former Penn State coach Ed DeChellis, now the head coach at Navy.
“I always thought that stuff was a waste of time. I'll be honest with you,” said McCaffery, in his 20th season as a college coach and sixth at Iowa. “And (DeChellis) said, this thing is unbelievable. The first time I brought them in, I would concur.”
So, this was actually the third time McCaffery has done this at Iowa — he also did it prior to the 2013-14 season, when seniors Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury were going into their sophomore years.
“In the beginning, you're like, well, what are they doing. Then all of a sudden it all makes sense,” McCaffery said. “But what's beautiful is the kids have to figure it out. Nobody tells them.”
Woodbury thought the Hawkeyes came away from the experience with an increased mental edge for the grind of Big Ten play.
“The mindset they have is pretty incredible,” Woodbury said. “The things they do for our country that goes unnoticed behind the scenes is remarkable. I’ve got a lot of respect for the guys that came in both times. It was good for our guys to see that.”
Adam Woodbury on Iowa's No. 9 ranking, facing woeful Rutgers team.
How bad is Rutgers?
When Iowa (14-3 overall) visits Rutgers (6-13, 0-6 Big Ten) at 6 p.m. on Thursday in an ESPNU-televised game, it’ll be facing a team that lost Monday at home by 50 points to No. 22 Purdue. The Boilermakers’ big front line was a huge problem for smaller Rutgers, piling up a 63-23 rebounding advantage.
“(Purdue) was not a good matchup for Rutgers. I think Rutgers is much better than they showed last night,” McCaffery said. “You look at the Wake Forest game (69-68 loss), you look at the Indiana game (79-72 loss), I mean, that's more indicative, I think, of how Rutgers is.”
It might be a natural response for the Hawkeyes, who stats guru Ken Pomeroy says has played the seventh-toughest schedule in the nation, to think this win is going to come easy.
“It might be a little bit of a challenge to communicate that to the younger guys,” Gesell said, “but definitely us guys that have been through the Big Ten know that you can’t take a single night off.”
When McCaffery’s 2013-14 team got to No. 10 in the national polls in January, he took time to acknowledge that accomplishment, noting that that group of seniors was picked 11th in the conference his first season.
But the Hawkeyes’ move to No. 9 in both major polls Monday, the program’s highest mark in 14 seasons, was ignored by McCaffery.
“Most of us would say, rankings this time of year are incredibly meaningless. And I mean that sincerely. It just doesn't mean a thing,” he said. “We've got a game on Thursday, and if we win that, that'll be great. Then we have another one on Sunday.”
Register reporters Chris Cuellar and Chad Leistikow discuss the successful Big 10 run for the Hawkeyes and an update on football recruiting.
Uhl heading home
Top Iowa reserve Dom Uhl, a native of Germany, spent his final two years of high school in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., trying to earn a college scholarship. Thursday, he’ll be back “home,” where his host family and several friends will attend the game.
Point Pleasant Beach is about a 45-minute drive from the Rutgers campus.
Uhl is playing his best basketball, having scored 10 points in three consecutive games. The 6-foot-8 forward has made a staggering 9-of-11 3-point attempts in Big Ten play.
“He's got a lot of 3-man skills,” McCaffery said, “and he's a mismatch nightmare for 5s.”
Is Uhl just more confident than a year ago?
“I think it’s the same,” Uhl said. “I’m just getting to play a little more.”
Look for freshman guard Christian Williams to see some game action Thursday at Rutgers, not just because the Hawkeyes are expected to dominate the game.
After seeing his first Big Ten action at Michigan State on Thursday (four minutes), Williams didn’t play in Iowa’s 82-71 Sunday win over Michigan.
“I'm really kind of disappointed in myself, quite honestly, that I didn't play him a little bit on Sunday at least, especially because of the way he played against Michigan State,” McCaffery said. “So we'll try to rectify that moving forward.”
Fellow freshman Andrew Fleming hasn’t seen action since Dec. 22 against Tennessee Tech.