The Iowa Caucuses are a week old, ancient history in the world of 24-hour news. But just because the political world has picked up and left doesn't mean the college basketball world's focus has departed from the Hawkeye State.
Iowa is expected to climb even higher from its No. 5 ranking when the new AP poll comes out Monday afternoon, a mighty deserving jump considering everything is going right for the Hawkeyes right now.
At 19-4 overall and 10-1 in the conference after defeating Illinois, 77-65, on Sunday in Champaign, Iowa is alone atop the Big Ten standings thanks to Indiana's tie-breaking loss at Penn State on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes boast a fantastic resume for tournament time with seasons sweeps of Michigan State and Purdue and their lone conference loss coming on the road at fellow top-10 team Maryland. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Iowa's only defeats came against Big 12 contender Iowa State, perennial tournament team Dayton and Notre Dame, which just Saturday upset No. 2 North Carolina.
So how are they doing it? How have the Hawkeyes, who were expected to be good but not this good, turned into the Big Ten's clear-cut No. 1 team and a team that seems to have as good a chance to win a national title as any?
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Many point, and rightfully so, to Iowa's veteran-heavy starting five. Four Hawkeye starters are seniors: Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons. The other, Peter Jok, is a junior. That experience of playing through every imaginable situation, as head coach Fran McCaffery explained Sunday, certainly gives his team a leg up.
"Our senior group — it's one thing to say you're a senior, but they're seniors who have started, who have played, who have made mistakes, who have had great games," McCaffery said. "They've won on the road, they've lost on the road, they've come back, they've lost leads. There's nothing that they haven't seen. And so I think what happens is, when you're in a situation like this, an environment like this and they make a run at you, there's no panic and that's what happens when you have experience."
But apart from just age, the Hawkeyes are blowing the doors off their opponents. Only run-and-gun Indiana is averaging more points per game among Big Ten teams than Iowa's 80.7. The Hawkeyes are outscoring teams by an average of 13.3 points per game, with all but one of their conference wins coming by double digits. But taking care of the ball is their strongest suit, leading the conference in turnover margin (plus-3.4 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7). They rank 13th and third in the country in those respective categories.
And experience is all well and good, but you have to play well, too. Iowa has done that, with almost every key player not just playing well but playing terrifically.
Uthoff has looked like the clubhouse leader for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, ranking third in the league in scoring with 18.4 points per game and leading the Big Ten with 2.9 blocks per game and 67 swats on the season. That's in a conference with multiple seven-foot centers. He also ranks in the top 10 in rebounding, 3-point field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. Sunday, he made his presence felt with 18 points and 12 rebounds for just his second double-double of the season. Versatility, thy name is Uthoff.
Woodbury is one of the Big Ten's top rebounders, averaging 7.7 rebounds per game. His numbers are more impressive on the offensive end, where he averages 2.57 offensive rebounds per game. Both those marks put him in the top 140 in the country. Offensive rebounding was the difference in Sunday's win, with the Hawkeyes turning 12 offensive rebounds into 26 second-chance points. Woodbury recorded his sixth double-double of the season (and fourth in his last five games) with 10 points and 14 rebounds.
"Adam has really established himself, I think, as a premier rebounder in this country," McCaffery said. "It makes such a difference to your defense when you only give them one shot, and he gets it. But he's also got five offensive rebounds (in Sunday's game) and gave us a couple extra opportunities, especially late."
Jok has perhaps been the biggest revelation for this Iowa team, evolving this season into a player capable of not just complementing Uthoff but being the team's primary scorer on any given night. He ranks 11th in the Big Ten with 15.5 points per game. He's also one of the league's top 3-point shooters and free-throw shooters, and he ranks fourth in the conference in steals. Jok is averaging 17.6 points per game in Big Ten play, and he's posted seven 20-point scoring performances this season, Sunday being the latest when he led the way for Iowa with 23 points.
"He's playing with a tremendous amount of confidence, obviously, you can see that," McCaffery said. "He's going to keep firing, and I want him to keep firing. But I think you're seeing a much more complete player. Defensively, you can see the steal he made midway through the second half, which was at the time a momentum shift, gave us another basket. And I just think you're watching a guy who when he was young was a guy who made some mistakes, and he's not doing that anymore. So he's making shots, he's playing defense, his stamina has improved and he's not making mistakes. Really proud of him."
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Then there's that experience coming into play again with Gesell and Clemmons, a pair of senior guards who McCaffery lauded for their ability to know the situation and control the game. They can also play defense and put the ball in the basket, adding even more to this high-flying group.
"Not only do we have an experienced backcourt, we have two senior point guards on the floor at the same time," McCaffery said. "So the decision-making and the passing and their ability to run an efficient offense without turning the ball over, recognizing time and score, who's on a run — can we go quick, can we move it, can we go side to side, does Malcolm Hill have four fouls, can we get it to Jarrod and put some pressure on him? Those guys just understand that kind of stuff."
How far can the Hawkeyes go? Well, while college basketball this season has been a Home Alone-style house of booby traps for top-ranked teams, certainly Iowa is looking to be one of the nation's best. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Hawkeyes as a No. 1 seed in his latest bracket projections, he has for a couple weeks now. And though there are a few weeks of the regular season still to be played, there don't appear to be more than two teams (Maryland and Michigan State; sorry Indiana, shouldn't have lost to Penn State) that would be considered threats to Iowa's favorite status heading into the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
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How far can the Hawkeyes go? The coach they beat Sunday seems to think that with their experience and their expertise in playing alongside one another they can beat anyone.
"They're a very good team," Illinois head coach John Groce said. "They've got very good players, but they're a very good team that's had great continuity and stability and health. I think as long as that stays true for them — teams win games, they do. And I think they're good enough, they've got a chance to beat anybody. They defend, they play offense, they've got multiple weapons, they don't beat themselves.
"You can tell those guys have played together for a long time. It's been neat to watch, I told one of their seniors after the game, watching them. Their evolution has basically been during my tenure here, when they were younger and now they're older. And they appear to have honored the process, and they play the right way. I've got a lot of respect for their team. I think they've got a really good basketball team."