Brown: Against Badgers, Hawkeyes have to pick their poison
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Mike Gesell has played in a lot of one-sided basketball games during his career. Always on the winning side. That changed 11 days ago when the junior point guard and his Iowa team got crushed at Wisconsin by 32 points.
"We couldn't do anything right," Gesell said.
The fifth-ranked Badgers are back for Saturday's 11 a.m. rematch at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and they're favored to move a step closer to the Big Ten title most gave them before the season started.
Iowa will try to erase memories of that one-sided contest with the help of a sellout crowd. It's a challenge that will grow if Aaron White, the Hawkeyes' leading scorer and rebounder, is a spectator.
The senior forward continues to improve from the right shoulder injury he suffered at Purdue a week ago. He says he'll play. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery isn't so sure. Granted, coaches are pessimists by nature, and players are optimists. Officially, White is listed as a game-time decision.
Even with White in the lineup, Iowa struggled to do anything against a team led by preseason player of the year Frank Kaminsky. It was supposed to be a duel of the league's two best frontcourts.
Wisconsin's starting front court combined for 46 points and 24 rebounds. Iowa's was limited to 20 points and 10 boards. The Hawkeyes found no rhythm against a Wisconsin defense devised by former Iowa assistant Gary Close, now one of Bo Ryan's assistants. And defensively, the Hawkeyes were a step late. A toxic combination.
"The coaches broke down the film for us," Gesell said. "They showed us how bad it really was. We're a better team because of it."
After White was injured, McCaffery had success with a small lineup down the stretch at Purdue. Gesell scored his team's final 12 points, attacking the rim off the dribble and playing with the kind of aggressiveness that McCaffery has pushed.
But going small would lead to a distinctive size disadvantage against Wisconsin. McCaffery could play zone with a small lineup and hope the Badgers are misfiring from the perimeter. Or he could go with 6-8 freshman Dom Uhl in place of White. No matter the choice, he'll be rolling the dice against the fifth-ranked team in the country.
Iowa is trying to keep its NCAA hopes alive in a tough stretch of the season. Now 4-3 in the Big Ten and 13-7 overall, Saturday will be the Hawkeyes' eighth game against a ranked opponent this season, and 10th against a team that has spent time or currently resides in the Top 25. Iowa spent a week there, too, before getting lost in the blizzard at Wisconsin.
"Execution was poor in a lot of areas," McCaffery said. "Their execution was good in a lot of areas. It was kind of the perfect storm that way."
A total team breakdown, Iowa center Gabe Olaseni will tell you.
"You can't throw everything out, because it was a really bad loss," Olaseni said. "At the same time, we didn't do anything the coaching staff told us to do in that game."
Following the script put in front of them will be mandatory Saturday. And that might not be good enough.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.