Iowa was predicted to take a step up in the Big Ten, despite the Hawkeyes’ head-scratching tumble at the end of last season that put them in the NCAA tournament play-in games.

Yet with half of the 2014-15 conference slate in the rearview mirror, Iowa has once again had its ups and downs — flashes of brilliance, moments of mediocrity — making the Hawkeyes, once again, one of the most confusing teams in the Big Ten.

On Thursday, Iowa crushed Michigan 72-54, the worst loss the Wolverines have suffered at home in more than four years. But in Iowa’s three games before that, the Hawkeyes (14-8, 5-4 Big Ten) didn’t look like a team that can compete with the league’s best.

Sure, Iowa had the killer assignment of playing conference leader Wisconsin twice in that span. But the first matchup at the Kohl Center was lost by a stunning 32 points, the worst beating the Badgers have given any conference opponent this year.

“I don’t know if we’ve been as consistent as we need to be defensively,” coach Fran McCaffery told media after the second Wisconsin loss, that one a more respectable 74-63 showing at home. “We have been great at times, really bad at times, and we’ve been mediocre a good portion of the time.”

It’s probably true that Iowa’s defense — last in the conference in defensive efficiency, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy’s metrics — plays the role of wild card. We saw that early this season in Iowa’s first signature victory, 60-55 at North Carolina on Dec. 12. The Hawkeyes were not playing their typical high-scoring style, but they held the Tar Heels to just 27.9 percent shooting from the floor. Iowa’s 71-65 victory at Ohio State to open Big Ten play came after the Hawkeyes held a team shooting 55 percent at its home arena to only 42.9 percent.

Their capability on the other end is obvious. At Michigan, the Hawkeyes shot a season-high 62.7 percent. They got good production from starters Aaron White and Mike Gesell, as well as backup center Gabe Olaseni, all of whom have been playing banged up. They handled the Wolverines’ 1-3-1 zone, which has baffled other teams.

But if the Hawkeyes are going to seize the consistency they couldn’t find last year — losing seven of their last eight games and falling from 10th in the nation to a loss to Tennessee in their play-in game — a parade of points, points, points might not be enough. Iowa’s size and length makes its zone tough to penetrate when the Hawkeyes are sharp with their rotations.

Iowa, which was ranked No. 25 for one week this season, played some of its best offense of the year in the first half of its second game vs. Wisconsin, only to fall apart in the second half. And in its much-needed victory Thursday, it was a switch from man-to-man to zone that got Iowa out of an early deficit.

“It was really our defense,” White told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “We really ramped up our defense. Our zone was good for us. We’ve got great length, so I think we really used that both offensively and defensively.”

Big Ten power poll

Wisconsin (20-2, 8-1): There just isn’t enough competition in this league this year.

Purdue (15-8, 7-3): In the previous three weeks, three different teams occupied this spot. It’s hard to argue with a Boilermakers team that has knocked off three ranked teams in four games.

Ohio State (17-6, 6-4): The Buckeyes own the conference’s biggest shooting percentage difference: 55 percent at home, 40.1 on the road.

Maryland (19-4, 7-3): The only conference team not named Wisconsin that hasn’t lost at home in Big Ten play.

Michigan State (15-7, 6-3): The Spartans have won three of four against subpar competition. Can they keep it up?

Iowa (14-8, 5-4): A hurting Aaron White is producing, and the Hawkeyes are hoping the road beating of Michigan will get them back on track.

Illinois (15-8, 5-5): A Purdue victory two weeks ago is starting to look better and better.

Indiana (16-7, 6-4): Three losses in four games, but all on the road against the top three.

Michigan (13-10, 6-5): Hasn’t won more than two in a row since November.

Nebraska (13-9, 5-5): One of the conference’s worst offenses has been a liability.

Gophers (14-9, 3-7): Three victories in five games, but an uphill battle remains.

Penn State (14-9, 2-8): After consecutive road losses, the Nittany Lions are itching to get back to Happy Valley.

Rutgers (10-14, 2-9): Only two of the Scarlet Knights’ conference losses have been within seven points.

Northwestern (10-12, 1-8): The Wildcats’ eight-game losing streak is a conference worst.

College basketball short takes

Boilermakers, bulldozers: Heading into its game at Williams Arena (2 p.m. Saturday, BTN), Purdue is on a four-game winning streak and has knocked off three ranked opponents in that span, having beaten Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State at home.

If coach Matt Painter’s team can make it past the Gophers, the slow-starting Boilermakers have a chance to be ranked when the latest polls are released on Monday.

Doing Dez: Since returning from a fractured wrist at the end of December, Maryland’s Dez Wells has struggled to find consistency. Wednesday, the senior swingman’s 8-for-10, 23-point performance marked his best since the second game of the season and helped the Terrapins push past Penn State. Can Wells — a third-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection a year ago — make it a habit, starting at Iowa (noon Sunday, Ch. 4)?

Living without Loving: Ohio State doesn’t want to provide an explanation for its indefinite suspension of sophomore forward Marc Loving, announced Wednesday, but is hoping someone else can provide some of the production the Buckeyes are losing from their second-leading scorer. That didn’t work out so well in a 60-58 loss at Purdue on Wednesday. They Buckeyes will have another chance against Rutgers (4:30 p.m. Sunday, BTN).

'Big Three' watch

A weekly update on Minnesotans Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Duke), Reid Travis (DeLa­Salle, Stanford) and Rashad Vaughn (Cooper, UNLV):

Travis is back, after sitting for more than a month because of an upper-leg stress fracture, but his much-anticipated return hasn’t netted any victories for the Cardinal. Since the power forward has re-entered the rotation, Stanford is on a two-game losing streak, at Washington State and then home vs. UCLA. In those games, Travis played a total of 28 minutes, scoring seven points and adding four rebounds.