The Iowa coach is asked about his feelings halfway through the Big Ten schedule.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — This is a week for Iowa basketball to stay quiet and take care of business.
Between the Iowa caucuses, an expected blizzard, National Signing Day and the Super Bowl, the seventh-ranked Hawkeyes will be flying under the media radar. They’ll only make big news if they lose one of their upcoming two games against beatable opponents — on Wednesday vs. Penn State or Sunday at Illinois.
The Hawkeyes (17-4 overall) have carried a professional approach to each of the first five weeks of the Big Ten Conference grind. That’s gotten them to an 8-1 record, the program’s best Big Ten halfway-mark winning percentage (.889) since Ralph Miller’s 1969-70 “Six Pack” Hawkeyes were 7-0 on the way to 14-0.
The margin of victory (seven of the eight wins are by double digits) and strength of schedule (11th-toughest in the country, highest of any Big Ten team, according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy) have made the start all the more impressive.
“I’m very happy where we’re at,” senior guard Mike Gesell said. “We probably had one of the hardest schedules in the Big Ten. We’re sitting in a good position. We’ve just got to keep taking care of business and get better every day. We have a lot of season left.”
Emerging from this week with a 10-1 Big Ten record is a borderline “must” for Iowa to end up as a regular-season conference champion for the first time in 37 years. Pomeroy projects the Hawkeyes to beat Penn State by 20 and Illinois by 12, even though the latter is in Champaign’s State Farm Center, historically a vexing arena for Iowa.
Let's look at the other three horses out front with Iowa at the halfway pole.
Indiana (8-1) is tied at the top, but the Hoosiers will have a challenging week to stay there. Indiana is at Michigan on Tuesday and at Penn State on Saturday. Indiana and Iowa meet Feb. 11 in Bloomington, then March 1 in Iowa City for Senior Day.
The Wolverines (7-2) have won four in a row and can harness their championship hopes by protecting Crisler Arena this week, first against the Hoosiers, then against rival Michigan State (6-4) on Saturday.
But the team Iowa needs to stay ahead of is Maryland, which at 8-2 just beat the Hawkeyes on Thursday and is staring at a manageable schedule the rest of the way. The Terrapins’ three toughest games remaining are a home-and-home with Purdue (7-3) and at Indiana to finish. Iowa would be fortunate if Maryland loses twice more to finish 14-4, but it’s reasonable to expect the talent-rich Terps to go 15-3 or better.
No wonder Iowa players weren’t relishing Sunday’s 85-71 win over Northwestern.
“You have to enjoy this for a second,” senior guard Anthony Clemmons said, “then put it in your back pocket.
“Nobody expected us to be at the top. We were expected to be at the bottom or the middle. That’s what great teams do. They continue to have fight, continue to have hunger.”
Winning the Big Ten is the primary goal for this Hawkeye group, and it has been since Day 1 of practice — yes, even before the exhibition loss to Division II Augustana of South Dakota. Although the biggest season-definer (the NCAA Tournament) begins about two weeks after the season finale March 5 at Michigan, winning a Big Ten regular-season title would go a long way toward unlocking March Madness success: namely, the opportunity to play the first- and second-round games in Des Moines as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Iowa was listed Monday as a projected No. 1 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
No injuries, no bad losses this week and the Hawkeyes will likely be there again a week from now.
“Yes, I think we’re in a good position. Our goal has stayed the same, winning a Big Ten championship,” senior forward Jarrod Uthoff said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the Big Ten season.”
It doesn’t get more simple or businesslike than that.
UP NEXT FOR IOWA
WHO: No. 7 Iowa (17-4, 8-1 Big Ten) vs. Penn State (11-11, 2-7)
WHEN/WHERE: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
Need to know: As of Monday, there were 3,300 tickets available. ... The Iowa football team will be honored at halftime, with the Big Ten West title trophy and four rivalry-game trophies on display at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Some football players will perform with the Iowa Dance Team at halftime, too ... The first 1,500 fans can get a bobblehead of coach Fran McCaffery. ... Because parking around Carver-Hawkeye is limited with UI staff and faculty working until 5 p.m., additional shuttles will be available from Hancher Auditorium starting at 4:30 p.m.