Iowa on its way to owning Big Ten in 2016

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  • Michigan State's Eron Harris, left, is defended by Iowa's Dom Uhi during the first half at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center in East Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Iowa won, 76-59. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

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  • Michigan State's Eron Harris, left, is defended by Iowa's Dom Uhi during the first half at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center in East Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Iowa won, 76-59. (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

    TNS

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By Dan Escalona

Tweet: Forget the Spartans, the Big Ten is Iowa’s to lose, writes college hoops columnist @danescalona77

Football
season may still be seven months away, but Iowa is making its best
attempt at revenge for the Big Ten Championship game on the basketball
court — not the gridiron.

In case you haven’t fully caught up to college
basketball yet, the No. 9 Hawkeyes have beaten Michigan State
twice — once when Spartans were No.1 — and compiled a 6-0 record against
top 50 RPI opponents. These developments have played a major role in
leading the team to an undefeated start in Big Ten play and a possible
No.2 seed in the tournament, according to Joe Lunardi’s latest
Bracketlogy projections.

Iowa’s only losses this season have
come against perennial tournament teams — Dayton, Notre Dame and Iowa
State. Its three losses were all by an average of four points,
including a one-point loss to the Cyclones.

This start has made
the Hawkeyes a bona fide conference and national contender, and the best team in head coach Fran McCaffrey’s tenure. Heck, this may be
one of the best Iowa squads since the Lute Olson years of the early
1980s.

What, you ask, exactly has led to a relative Big Ten basketball afterthought becoming one of the hottest teams in the country?

An
imposing paint presence and effective guard play have come together to mold Iowa into a surprising conference
contender.

The irreplaceable cog in Iowa’s engine is senior forward Jarrod Uthoff — a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate.

Uthoff leads the conference in both points and blocks per game,
making the Hawkeyes one of the more formidable teams in the post on both
ends of the floor. He may not be as widely known as Frank Kaminsky was, but
Uthoff is besting the former Wisconsin great in a number of categories.

At this point in the season, Uthoff has better numbers in blocks per game,
three-point percentage and free-throw percentage than Kaminsky did in
his banner 2014-15 season. Even in points per game Uthoff is averaging
just a sliver less — 0.2 to be exact — than Kaminsky a year ago.

The strong backcourt play of Peter Jok and Mike Geselle has complemented
Uthoff’s inside strength. Both players average about 10
points per game, yet the most important aspect this backcourt duo brings
every game are the ability to take care of the rock and get other
players involved.

Giselle is second in the conference in assists
per game, while Jok is tied for third in steals. This has played a big
role in the Hawkeyes leading the Big Ten in turnover margin and assist
to turnover ratio, and they rank second in steals.

Iowa’s
backcourt not only frustrates opponents by forcing them into turnovers, but it also complements its inside scoring prowess with one of the
conference’s best three-point shooting attacks. The Hawkeyes rank at the
top in three-point field-goal percentage and, just as importantly, in
three-point defense.

The combo of the inside scoring and defense
provided by Uthoff and the assisting, stealing and shooting provided by
the backcourt are lethal amalgamation of factors that make Iowa a viable
candidate to win the Big Ten and make a deep run in March.

The
Hawkeyes’ emergence is, above all, a positive indictment of the Big
Ten’s overall strength. It says a lot about the conference’s strength
that a non-traditional basketball power such as Iowa can compete with —
and even out-compete — traditional powers such as Michigan State,
Indiana, Maryland, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Furthermore, the
rise of the Hawkeyes serves to break up some of the monotony of having
the same teams — Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana —
dominate the conference year after year.

Best of all, Iowa’s hot
start to the season can — at least temporarily — allow its fans to
forget the debacle that was the Rose Bowl.

Dan is a senior in Media.

[email protected]

@danescalona77