The Iowa senior speaks before Thursday's showdown at Indiana.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — First one to 90 wins?
Sure, you can expect a lot of points Thursday night inside Assembly Hall, as the Big Ten Conference’s two highest-scoring teams meet in an 8 p.m. game that could alter the league title race.
But as far as fifth-ranked Iowa is concerned, this one will be won when Indiana — the nation’s second-best shooting team at 51.1 percent — has the basketball in its hand.
“The key is the defensive end every game,” Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell said. “We’ve got to allow our defense to dictate our offense. When we’re not making shots, we’ve got to rely on our defense.”
This one’s a biggie for the Hawkeyes (19-4, 10-1 Big Ten), who can either fall into a first-place tie with Maryland (22-3, 10-2) and Indiana (19-5, 9-2) or take another big step forward in their quest for the first regular-season conference title in 37 years.
So far, “surgical” best describes Iowa’s march through the Big Ten schedule. Nine of the 10 wins have come by double figures, including three on the road (Michigan State, Rutgers, Illinois).
Like a doctor who comes thoroughly prepared for an operation, the Hawkeyes take a meticulous approach to every game. They spent practices Tuesday and Wednesday soaking up the gameplan from assistant coach Kirk Speraw, who annually gets the Indiana scout.
“Speraw, he watches more film than anyone I’ve been around,” Iowa junior wing Peter Jok said. “They do a really good job putting the scouting report together. All we have to do is follow it.”
Last year, Iowa followed the Speraw script and pounded the Hoosiers 77-63 in Bloomington. The Hawkeyes held star guard Yogi Ferrell to 3-for-11 shooting in that one.
“We came ready to play last year,” Jok said. “We shut down the main guy we needed to shut down to win."
Having a veteran group helps. How each player processes information from assistants Speraw, Sherman Dillard and Andrew Francis, though, varies.
“Truthfully, I try to only take in what I use on the court,” senior forward Jarrod Uthoff said. “I take in personnel. I know people, I know what their tendencies are. I know how to defend them.
“You ask (the assistants) a question about the team, they know it. I think it’s a personal preference how much you take in. It’s absolutely wonderful that the coaches have everything for you, ready, so that if you need it, it’s there.”
It almost sounds robotic, but maybe that's why it's been so effective.
The stakes are getting bigger for the fifth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa plays Indiana on Thursday in a showdown of the top teams in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes, despite scoring 80.7 points a game, boast the 11th-most efficient defense in the country, allowing .923 points per possession according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings. That number will be put to the test against an Indiana team that is third nationally on 2-point attempts (57.0 percent) and fourth from 3-point range (42.2 percent).
“They run. They attack. They get lay-ups,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “If you're shooting those kinds of numbers, you're getting lay-ups.”
Ferrell is the engine that makes Indiana go. The 6-foot senior is averaging 17.3 points and 5.8 assists a game, both ranking fourth in the Big Ten.
Gesell and Anthony Clemmons will likely get their shots at guarding him, but don’t be surprised to see Iowa play zone, too. McCaffery has been masterful at mixing up defenses all season.
“We did really good in our zone (last year), so we pretty much stuck with it,” Clemmons said. “I know the times I was on him, he wasn’t as assertive.”
Indiana’s top five scorers shoot at least 47 percent from the field, though the loss of James Blackmon Jr. (15.8 ppg) to a season-ending knee injury was big. Thomas Bryant, a 6-foot-10 center, is shooting an incredible 72.4 percent from the floor. McCaffery lauded the relentless motor of 6-7 Troy Williams, who averages 12.8 points.
In other words, the Hoosiers will keep coming — and they can score in bunches, as shown last week with a 28-0 run at Michigan. They’ve won three Big Ten home games by at least 25 points.
“You've got to get back. If you score the ball, that helps, because it's harder to run on makes," McCaffery said. "But they run on makes, (so) you've got to get your defense back. If you don't get your defense back, they're going to score 100.”
Iowa learned its lesson after getting beat 93-86 in a track meet two years ago in Bloomington.
In last year’s trip, Iowa held Indiana to 30 fewer points.
The Hawkeyes believe they can do it again, and keep the good times rolling. If they can, back-to-back games against two of the Big Ten’s worst teams — Minnesota and Penn State — await before a difficult finish against Wisconsin (home), Ohio State (road), Indiana (home) and Michigan (road).
“I can’t complain. Top five nationally. Still a lot of work to be done,” senior center Adam Woodbury said. “We’re playing for a Big Ten title. We like where we’re at right now and continue to improve every day.”
NO. 5 IOWA (19-4, 10-1) AT NO. 22 INDIANA (19-5, 9-2)
When, where: 8 p.m. CT, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.
TV: ESPN (Announcers: Rece Davis, Dick Vitale, Kaylee Hartung)
Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius/XM Channel 84.
Game notes: Iowa''s Mike Gesell needs two points to reach 1,000 for his career. ... This is only Indiana's second game against a ranked opponent this year. The Hoosiers lost to then-No. 7 Duke, 94-74, on Dec 2 in the ACC/Big Ten challenge. Indiana next plays at Michigan State on Sunday. ... Iowa senior Adam Woodbury's 100 career assists are tied for the third-most nationally among active 7-footers.