Two months ago Saturday, Division II Augustana (S.D.) took down Iowa in an exhibition game on its home court, stunning Hawkeyes fans and leading to some head-scratching around the Big Ten.
Was Iowa — which was ranked between seventh and ninth in most preseason predictions — really this bad? Coach Fran McCaffery wasn’t exactly sure what he had either. That’s why he scheduled Augustana — an experienced, shooter-stocked team that will likely compete for the Division II championship.
“We needed a game like this,” McCaffery said after the 76-74 loss. “We better play somebody who exposes our weaknesses as opposed to you win by 25 and you don’t really know anything yet.”
Flash forward to this weekend, and Iowa (12-3, 3-0) is a top-20 team undefeated in league play after following up back-to-back victories over then-No. 1 Michigan State and No. 14 Purdue with a decisive win over Nebraska. Folks around the country might not know exactly what Iowa can be just yet — the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes still have plenty to prove over a long, testing conference slate — but we’re starting to get the idea that McCaffery’s bunch has enough talent to make some noise.
The simple explanation for Iowa’s charge is to believe the Hawkeyes pinpointed the weaknesses Augustana exposed in early November and turned them into strengths.
Well, not really.
Iowa, in the middle of a nine-day layoff from games, is still thin on options outside of its starting five and probably will struggle to rebound all year, the same two big concerns outlined in that exhibition game.
But the No. 19 Hawkeyes have made their nest by doing what they can do really, really well. Iowa has used its signature pressuring defense just rarely enough to allow it to be a pace-jolting weapon. Four players have collected 13 steals or more this season.
The Hawkeyes’ starting five is made up of one junior and four seniors all capable of handling a big load. Mike Gesell, who is coming off his first career double-double with 22 points and 10 assists against Nebraska, jump-starts an efficient offense that is scoring 1.13 points per possession.
Jarrod Uthoff, a 6-9 matchup nightmare, has transformed himself into a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate while averaging 18.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks, many of those coming on the perimeter. All starters except center Adam Woodbury, Iowa’s best post presence, can rip off three-pointers, and Iowa is knocking down almost 40 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.
“They’re kind of doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” McCaffery said during Monday’s conference call. “They’re playing intelligently, they’re sharing the ball, they’re defending. They understand the grind of what this league is, but it’s still early. There is a lot of grind left.”
Maybe so, but two months ago, this reality was far from certain. The question now is whether Iowa can stay healthy and keep pace in a league that has enough talent to expose those weaknesses and wear the Hawkeyes down once again.
Iowa, far from where it was in November, is now a bigger target than ever.
“I think it changes things a little bit,” McCaffery said. “People want to beat ranked opponents, it’s talked about a lot more, it has more impact. … We’re going to be looked at a little differently, and we’ve got to be ready for that.”
Ben Simmons and more, it turns out
One thought: Last week in this space, I warned college hoops fans to enjoy LSU star Ben Simmons while he was around since it seemed oh-so-crystal-clear that the Tigers, losers to the likes of Charleston and Wake Forest, weren’t making the NCAA tournament. Tuesday, Simmons’ teammates said not so fast. Perhaps the most intriguing part of LSU’s 85-67 upset of No. 9 Kentucky was not Simmons’ expected heroics but the fact that two other Tigers — Craig Victor II and Tim Quarterman — outscored him and matched or bested his 10 rebounds. Kentucky had a terrible night, true, but let’s ask this about the Tigers (9-5): Is this the start of something special? If so, it’s going to be fun to watch.
Vanderbilt at South Carolina (2 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU): The Gamecocks will still be undefeated when Vanderbilt — the biggest test yet to the unexpected streak — comes to town to try to shake things up. Despite that whole 14-0 business, folks even in Columbia are having a hard time believing the Gamecocks are for real, and the featherweight schedule hasn’t added any confidence points. But a win Saturday would raise some eyebrows.
By the numbers
35 Days until No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Oklahoma – who treated the college basketball world to a three-overtime gem on Monday night — go at each other again.
6 The Big Ten’s RPI ranking, falling behind the Big 12, the Pac-12, the Big East, the ACC and the SEC in that order. The league hasn’t finished that low since 2009-10.
6 seed There’s a lot of season left, but former Gophers coach Tubby Smith’s Texas Tech squad is one of the early bracketology surprises.
Big Ten Power rankings
Iowa (12-3; 3-0): No one has started Big Ten play with a more impressive collection of wins after the Hawkeyes beat Michigan State, Purdue and Nebraska.
Maryland (14-1; 3-0): Melo Trimble was limited to 14 minutes against Rutgers, but the Terrapins still rolled by 25.
Purdue (14-2; 1-2): The Boilermakers showed their scoring potential in an 87-70 win vs. Michigan on Thursday.
Michigan State (15-1; 2-1): The good news for the Spartans is Denzel Valentine is likely to return Sunday.
Michigan (12-4; 2-1): Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has been big stepping in for Caris LeVert, but the Wolverines need their star back.
Indiana (13-3; 3-0): Scoring will be harder now that dynamic James Blackmon Jr. is out the rest of the season after knee surgery.
Ohio State (11-5; 3-0): The young Buckeyes still have their flaws, but it’s hard to argue with an undefeated start.
Northwestern (13-3; 1-2): The Wildcats are losers of two straight, but freshman Dererk Pardon has done well replacing injured center Alex Olah.
Wisconsin (9-7; 1-2): Five of the Badgers’ seven losses have come by one or two possessions.
Penn State (10-6; 1-2): The Nittany Lions bested Minnesota 34-15 in the paint on Tuesday.
Nebraska (8-8; 0-3): Foul trouble has been a struggle for the Huskers, who had four players finish with four fouls and one who fouled out Tuesday.
Illinois (8-8; 0-3): The Illini, already down three starters, didn’t have guard Kendrick Nunn on Thursday because of the birth of his first child.
Minnesota (6-9; 0-3): An eight-point lead didn’t last against Penn State, and the Gophers’ string of league losses did.
Rutgers (6-10; 0-3): With the loss of Jonathan Laurent (concussion), the Scarlet Knights had no chance at Maryland.