LUKE MEREDITH, AP Sports Writer
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — In non-conference play, Iowa looked like a talented team still searching for a breakout performance.
The Hawkeyes appear to have figured things out.
Iowa (11-3, 2-0 Big Ten) is rolling after one of its best weeks in years. The Hawkeyes rolled past then-No. 1 Michigan State 83-70 to open league play at home and beat then-No. 14 Purdue 70-63 on the road Saturday.
The 19th-ranked Hawkeyes, who moved into the Top 25 for the first time on Monday, host Nebraska (8-7, 0-2) on Tuesday.
“I think what you’re seeing is a team that understands how you have to compete, how you have to prepare, how you have to stay together and continue to believe in each other,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Such development has come at the perfect time for a team hoping to push for a strong Big Ten finish this season.
Iowa has also proven it can win when star Jarrod Uthoff isn’t at his best.
Uthoff has embraced his expanded role as a senior, ranking second in the Big Ten with 18.1 points a game and first with 3.3 blocks. Uthoff had 30 points in the first half alone in an 83-82 loss at Iowa State in December — a game that showed both how good Iowa could be and how far it had to go — and his 25 points were crucial in the Hawkeyes’ first win at Purdue since 2006.
But Uthoff struggled with foul trouble in the three games prior to Saturday’s win over the Boilermakers. Against the Spartans, Uthoff also shot just 4 of 11 from the field with eight turnovers.
It didn’t matter.
Guards Mike Gesell and Peter Jok combined for 44 points as the Hawkeyes breezed past a Michigan State team missing its best player, Denzel Valentine.
Uthoff then responded by helping key a 19-point rally against Purdue. He finished with a pair of steals and five blocks, helping him move to fourth nationally in blocks per game.
“The first thing is his length. The second is his timing. Third, he can move his feet laterally,” McCaffery said of Uthoff’s blocking prowess.
The performances of Gesell and Jok against Michigan State were also a clear indication that they, like Uthoff, are having their best seasons at Iowa. Gesell, finally healthy after a hyperextended elbow essentially robbed him of his jump shot down the stretch last season, is averaging career highs in points (9.1 per game), assists (6.7) and rebounds (3.5).
Jok, a junior, has upped his points per game from 7 to 13.5 this season while playing less than 24 minutes. Senior center Adam Woodbury has also had his best year so far, shooting 56.8 percent from the floor and 82.4 percent from the line.
Still, remaining road trips to Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana and Michigan make any talk about the Hawkeyes as a serious Big Ten contender a bit premature.
But Iowa appears to be rounding into form just as its schedule hits its toughest stretch.
“It’s still early. There’s a lot of grind left,” McCaffery said. “Who knows what the ceiling is?”
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