How No. 7 Hawkeyes' businesslike approach has taken hold

Chad Leistikow

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – It is one thing for a college basketball team to say it’s adopting the cliché approach of “one game at a time.” It’s another to mean it.

By their actions and words, it’s clear the players for No. 7-ranked Iowa know no other way.

It’s something coach Fran McCaffery has consciously ingrained in his programs at UNC-Greensboro, Siena and now Iowa. It’s something he was first exposed to in the 1990s as a Notre Dame assistant under John MacLeod, a longtime NBA coach mostly with the Phoenix Suns.

“What I try to do is not make any one game prep any more important than the other,” said McCaffery, in his sixth year here. “It’s exactly the same for the next game.”

This approach is especially applicable now for the Hawkeyes (18-4, 9-1 in the Big Ten Conference), who have soared into the nation’s top 10 with a steady stream of wins over NCAA RPI Top 50 teams in Michigan State (twice), Purdue (twice), Wichita State, Florida State and Michigan.

There could be a natural tendency to overlook Sunday’s noon game at Illinois – especially with a game Thursday at Indiana with potentially the outright Big Ten lead at stake. Illinois (11-12, 3-7) is an injury-riddled and thereby thin team that’s played five overtimes in its last four games.

“Just got to keep grinding,” senior guard Anthony Clemmons said after Iowa controlled Penn State, 73-49, on Wednesday. “We’ve got a lot of momentum right now.”

Instilling the one-game mantra isn’t as easy as giving a speech. There’s a process McCaffery uses to develop a mentality that has helped Iowa be consistent at home (15 wins in a row) and on the road (wins in 11 of the last 16).

In the preseason, it's all about establishing and refining the Hawkeyes’ style of play – and adding packages for potential adjustments that might come along the way.

Once the 30-game regular season begins, practices are consumed with preparing specifically for whatever team is next on the schedule.

“Then you just focus on those things in that game, on that day,” McCaffery said. “And then you shift to the next one. What it does is it creates a consistency that’s required.

“And then it comes down to very simply, do you have professional guys that are smart enough to understand that concept?”

No doubt, this year’s Iowa team does, led by four team-oriented senior starters – Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury.

As Woodbury put it, “We take it one game at a time and prepare for every game like it’s our last.”

Another reason opponent-focused practices work well for Iowa is that players are able to enhance their own games on their own time – a benefit of having a dedicated practice gym at Carver-Hawkeye Arena that was completed before the 2011-12 season.

Like some of his teammates, Uthoff always wears a suit and tie for postgame interviews. That’s emblematic of making sure every game is a serious assignment.

Uthoff is the perfect face of this team as a possible Big Ten MVP – confident yet calculated. When discussing Illinois, which is coming off a triple-overtime win at Rutgers, he knew the challenge ahead. As a program, Iowa had an 11-game losing streak in Champaign, spanning 15 years until winning at the State Farm Center in 2014.

“Tough place to play, they get loud,” Uthoff said. “They’re going to play you tough every time you play them.”

If the Hawkeyes play true to their season form, they’ll be 10-1 in conference play before Super Bowl 50 kicks off. And they’ll continue to be in control of their preseason goal: Winning the program’s first regular-season Big Ten title in 37 years.

“If we take care of business every night out, we’ll win the Big Ten title,” Woodbury said. “That goes without saying. The ball’s in our court. It always has been.”

NO. 7 IOWA (18-4, 9-1 BIG TEN) AT ILLINOIS (11-12, 3-7)

When, where: Noon Sunday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.

TV: Big Ten Network (Announcers: Kevin Kugler, Jon Crispin)

Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius/XM Channel 81.

Game notes: Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (6-6, 230) now leads the Big Ten in scoring at 19.1 points per game; Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff is second (18.4). Hill has scored in double figures in 28 straight games, dating to a 68-60 loss at Iowa in which he was held to two points on 1-for-10 shooting. … The Illini allow 76.2 points per game and rank last in field-goal percentage defense (46.3 percent). … Iowa guard Mike Gesell needs 10 points to reach 1,000 for his career. … Fran McCaffery has coached exactly 100 regular-season Big Ten games; he has a 51-49 record (including wins in 15 of his last 16).