In early February the debate regarding No. 8 Iowa wasn’t only whether or not they were the best team in the Big Ten, thanks to their sweeps of both Michigan State and Purdue, but also whether or not Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes had a case as the best team in the country. Jarrod Uthoff was playing at a first-team All-America level, Peter Jok was much improved from his first two seasons, and the Hawkeyes were receiving contributions from other players as well.
Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes those discussions have come to a halt, as they’re limping to the finish line. Sunday, Ohio State handed Iowa its fourth loss in the last five games by the final score of 68-64.
This was a big win for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes, who despite having 11 conference wins still have work to do when it comes to getting into the NCAA tournament. Of those 11 wins just three have come against teams not in the bottom five of the Big Ten standings, with their win over Iowa qualifying as the best of the bunch. Marc Loving led the way with 25 points, Keita Bates-Diop added 19, six rebounds and four blocks and Kam Williams scored 11 second-half points as Ohio State picked up its best win of the season to date.
As for Iowa, a team that appeared to have turned the corner when compared to past editions under McCaffery that would struggle to stop negative momentum is right back in a familiar spot.
One issue during this stretch is that Iowa, beginning with Uthoff, hasn’t been as good offensively as they were earlier this season. In Iowa’s last four losses the All-America candidate has shot just 35 percent from the field (21-for-60) and 25.9 percent from three (7-for-27). Jok’s been better during that same period, shooting 41.7 percent from the field, but neither has been as efficient as they were when the Hawkeyes were rolling through their schedule.
In these situations the supplementary players are needed to step forward, and outside of Mike Gesell (16 points) that did not happen against Ohio State. As a team the Hawkeyes shot just 40.7 percent from the field, with Uthoff (16 points), Gesell and Jok (12 points) responsible for 44 of the team’s 64 points. Shooting better than 43 percent in just one of their last five games (46 percent in a loss at Indiana), Iowa’s obviously struggled to make shots. And the task of finding quality looks becomes more difficult when opponents are essentially able to focus their defensive efforts on two players.
The question now is whether or not Iowa has what it takes to turn things around heading into the Big Ten tournament. If they can, given how college basketball as a whole has been this season, they’re still a team that can play deep into the NCAA tournament. Uthoff’s still a force to be reckoned with, and with Jok as his sidekick Iowa has two players teams will have to work to slow down. But the crisp ball and player movement that Iowa rode to the top spot in the Big Ten has been absent in recent weeks, resulting in this current stretch of four losses in their last five games.
After appearing to have taken the step forward that past Iowa teams under McCaffery struggled to navigate, these Hawkeyes find themselves in a similar spot. The hope now is that experienced players such as Uthoff and Jok, who have experienced many peaks and valleys during their time in Iowa City, can use the lessons learned then to spark a turnaround in advance of the NCAA tournament.