The most important thing for Hawkeyes to fix at Ohio State

Chad Leistikow
Iowa's Mike Gesell goes up for a shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The solution for Iowa to break out of its current lull (as Mike Gesell called it) is actually quite obvious: Make more baskets.

For all the talk about defense, toughness and confidence, the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes’ biggest problem of late is shooting the basketball.

Iowa shot a season-low 33 percent in Wednesday’s first home loss in more than a year, 67-59 to Wisconsin, and has been 42 percent or worse in the last three games. That’s uncharacteristic for a team that is at 46 percent for the season.

But despite losses in three of the last four games, Hawkeyes (20-7, 11-4 Big Ten) can still run the table and at least share a conference championship. The three-game, seven-day sprint to the finish begins with Sunday’s 3 p.m., CBS-televised game at Ohio State (18-11, 10-6).

“I’m not seeing a big problem with shot selection. I think our guys are pretty good there,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We had some really good looks down the stretch (against Wisconsin) with good shooters.”

McCaffery gives everyone he plays the green light, but nearly every Hawkeye – including leading scorer Jarrod Uthoff (37 percent in his last eight games) – is in a rut.

As a team, Iowa shot 48 percent or better four times during its 7-0 Big Ten start. It hasn’t done that once during a 4-4 stretch since.

“More motion? Less motion? More sets? More continuity?” McCaffery continued. “You could change the offense but as long as we have good shooters taking what I consider to be good shots, whether it be early or late in the clock, I don’t care. I’m just going to tell them to keep shooting.”

And while an extra three buckets a game might not sound like a big deal, consider that all of Iowa’s losses this year are by eight points or less.

Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries is Gesell, who is shooting 5-for-25 in his last three games. The senior point guard has the ability to fill up the net – as he showed with a 25-point game in a Dec. 29 win over then-No. 1 Michigan State – and he has the ball in his hands more than anybody.

One of Gesell’s money shots is that 15- to 17-foot pull-up jumper, but that's just not falling. It’s magnified when your team’s lost three of its last four games after a 10-1 Big Ten start.

“We all know he can score, and he’s got a great in-between game,” McCaffery said. “I think he’ll eventually get that figured out and be effective there. And when he is, we’re a much better team.”

A lot has been made about Iowa needing a third scorer to offset the prolific offensive showings from Uthoff and Peter Jok, who are each averaging 18.8 points a game in conference play. No other player is in double figures.

“I don’t think you look at a No. 3 scorer. You’ve got to get scoring from everybody,” McCaffery said. “Obviously, you identify the fact we have two primary scorers. … That’s pretty evident, and that’s OK. But the rest of our scoring has to come from everybody. I don’t think you can pick one guy.”

There’s encouraging news for Iowa. Ohio State’s Value City Arena has been a comfy shooting venue for the Hawkeyes in their last two trips there. Iowa shot 48 percent (29 of 61) in an 84-74 win over the then-No. 3 Buckeyes in 2014; and last season it was 46 percent (23 of 50) in a 71-65 victory in the Big Ten opener.

Iowa starts four seniors; Ohio State doesn’t plan any. The Buckeyes are not only young but they’re short-handed after losing “heart and soul” sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate for the season with shoulder surgery.

“You can’t sit around and make excuses, you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “You’ve got to go play.”

In the Buckeyes’ first game without Tate, they were blown out Tuesday by Michigan State at home, 81-62. With their season-ender next weekend in East Lansing, Ohio State’s best chance for a signature win comes Sunday – against a top-10 opponent that’s staggering a bit.

“We’ll see the real Iowa, as we always do,” Matta said. “In some ways, they’re similar to Michigan State. They’ll try to hit you quick.

“They’ve got a lot on the line, we have a lot on the line. I’m sure it’ll be another fantastic battle against them.”

NO. 8 IOWA (20-7, 11-4 BIG TEN) AT OHIO STATE (18-11, 10-6)

When, where: 3 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio

TV: CBS (Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Dan Bonner)

Radio: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius Channel 83, XM Channel 195.

Game notes: After recording 18 rebounds Wednesday, Iowa center Adam Woodbury is one board shy of averaging double figures in Big Ten play. He’s at 9.9 and has led Iowa in rebounding in 10 of the last 11 games. … If Iowa can win its final three games, it would tie a school record (set in 1970 and tied in 1987) for Big Ten victories in a season with 14. … Ohio State is one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country; three players average more than one per game. “Rarely do you have a team with multiple rim protectors,” McCaffery said. “You’ve just got to be smart when you go.”