For those who may have been quick to add an asterisk to No. 16 Iowa’s win over No. 4 Michigan State in the Big Ten opener for both December 29, citing the absence of senior guard Denzel Valentine, Thursday night’s rematch in East Lansing would provide the true answer to the question of whether or not Fran McCaffery’s team is a true conference title contender.
Neither the presence of Valentine nor the change of venue made any difference in the second meeting, as Iowa left no doubt in their 76-59 win in East Lansing.
Leading 12-11 just under four minutes into the game, Iowa broke the game open with a combination of highly efficient offense and solid defending, taking their lead from one to 22 (47-25) by the end of the first half. And this was done with Mike Gesell on the bench with two quick fouls and leading scorer Jarrod Uthoff scoring eight points on 3-for-10 shooting from the field.
Who stepped forward? None other than junior guard Peter Jok and sophomore forward Dom Uhl, who combined to score 29 of Iowa’s 47 first-half points.
Jok, who struggled with bouts of inconsistency in his first two seasons in Iowa City, has emerged as a more dependable offensive option this season. Jok entered the game shooting just over 39 percent from the field, which isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s averaging 13.1 points per game and has scored in double figures in five of Iowa’s last seven games. Jok was efficient against Michigan State, scoring a game-high 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field, rebounding from an eight-point outing in a win over Nebraska.
As for Uhl, he did nearly all of his damage in the first half, finishing the game with ten points and five rebounds (only one rebound after halftime) with all ten points coming during that period with Gesell on the bench. Like Jok, Uhl’s been a more productive player this season, averaging 18 minutes per game and raising both his scoring (7.3 from 2.1) and rebounding averages (4.3 from 1.8) from a season ago by solid margins.
Add in 13 points from guard Anthony Clemmons, and Iowa had more than enough offense to make up for slow starts from Uthoff and Gesell.
That’s one of the big differences between this Iowa team and those from the last couple of seasons. While those groups did not lack for talent, there were times when an off night from a primary option would prove to be too much to overcome. Thursday night the Hawkeyes received contributions across the lineup on both ends of the floor, using good ball movement to find quality shots against the Michigan State defense.
Add to that the fact that Michigan State couldn’t find its groove offensively (4-for-21 from three), and the end result was another quality win for Iowa. If they weren’t labeled a Big Ten title contender by now, this win should remove any doubt.