Iowa basketball: Three keys to the rest of Big Ten play

The Iowa basketball team was hit with a bit of a curve-ball Tuesday afternoon. Upon learning that due to “structural concerns” at Assembly Hall the Hawkeyes’ scheduled eight o’clock game against Indiana would be postponed, the team hopped back on a plane and returned to Iowa City.

Instead of working to close within a single game of Big Ten leaders Michigan and Michigan State, head coach Fran McCaffery & Company now must wait an extra four days before their next conference match-up this Saturday at home when they host no. 16 Wisconsin.

Not exactly the ideal scenario for the 15th ranked Hawkeyes (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten).

Whether or not the game with Indiana gets rescheduled remains uncertain. However, what Iowa can count on is at least five other challenging Big Ten contests before the conference tournament and postseason play begin. For the Hawkeyes to play their best ball down the stretch here’s a few areas they need to address and/or continue emphasizing:

1. Exercise the 3-ball judiciously 

For Iowa to have the greatest amount of success moving forward the 3-point line will have to be used as tool, just not overused.

The Hawkeyes are not a poor shooting team from beyond the arc. In fact, their nearly 37% proficiency from downtown is an above-average mark nationally.

Where this team can learn is that the remedy for sluggish starts or stagnant offense is not to jack up more outside shots. In Iowa’s last two losses to Michigan State and Ohio State (both at home) the Hawkeyes shot a combined 6-32 from long range. Simply put, this team can score in too many other ways for it to fall back on 3-point shooting to generate momentum.

Players like Zach McCabe and Aaron White need to shoot when open, but not settle if a higher percentage opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, a guy like Jarrod Uthoff almost needs to be kicked in order to look for his shot. I live by the principle that if you’re hitting over 45% of your attempts from behind the arc (Uthoff is) than you should have the green light to continue launching until it drops below 40%.

If Iowa can find the correct balance of attempts from distance on a consistent basis, look out.

2. Continue to foster the growth of Mike Gesell 

The continued development of Mike Gesell (left) will be instrumental in Iowa's success the rest of this season. (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

The continued development of Mike Gesell (left) will be instrumental in Iowa’s success the rest of this season. (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

The development of the sophomore floor general has been one of the many bright spots on the Iowa team this season. In fact, it might be THE most important one.

Gesell’s ball security in his second year as a Hawkeye has been remarkable, as is evidenced by his 3.23 assist to turnover ratio (12th nationally). As the year has progressed though, his impact on multiple areas of the game has steadily improved.

In Iowa’s last three games he has averaged 13 points (7-11 on 3’s), 6 assists, and barely over one turnover per ball game. Gesell has continued to minimize his mistakes, but his overall increased aggressiveness on the offensive end has really helped to further open up the floor for his teammates.

As the Hawkeye point guard’s game continues to grow, so will the success of the team.

3. Don’t be afraid to “mix it up” a little 

As the games start to matter more and more, teams will try to slow down the up-tempo Hawkeyes by getting physical with them. It’s not a bad strategy to use against a long and lanky Iowa squad, and its players need to recognize that.

While I would never advocate dirty or malicious play, I’m all for the Hawkeyes  asserting themselves a little more physically against opponents over the course of a game.

I’m admittedly not the biggest supporter of Adam Woodbury and Zach McCabe, but I will acknowledge that they do bring a element of toughness that is essential for all great teams to possess. In Iowa’s last game against Penn State I saw some elements of this toughness on display as players like Mike Gesell and Gabe Olaseni dove headfirst for loose balls without regard for their physical well-being.

Iowa is absolutely at its best when it can get out in the open floor and play free-flowing basketball. However, it also needs to show opponents that backing down from a fight is not in the DNA of this team.

A few hard fouls and a willingness to make the less glamorous plays will only serve to benefit the Hawkeyes in their quest to advance deep into March.

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