IOWA CITY — The two-hour ride from Ames to Iowa City was miserable for Iowa sophomore point guard Mike Gesell.
In the moments following an 85-82 loss to Iowa State, a game in which the Cyclones scored the final eight points, there was no conversation on the bus. Nothing.
“Awful. Dead silent,” Gesell said Thursday. “That one really hurt for us, especially the way we lost it. We felt like we had plenty of chances to put it away, and we felt like we played a great game throughout the game, just a few things at the end. So it was a tough ride home.”
Gesell was part of the “great game” portion for Iowa. He scored 11 points and dished six assists in 26 minutes without a turnover. After ISU took a three-point, second-half lead, Gesell scored on a drive to cut the deficit to one. After an ISU 3-pointer from Monte Morris, Gesell stepped up with a 3-pointer.
But Gesell also knows he was part of the “few things at the end.” He was an 83 percent free-throw shooter before stepping to the line with 2:44 left. He missed the front end of a one-and-one with a four-point lead. Even more difficult was going to the free-throw line down one point with 12 seconds left and missing both attempts.
“I think for a day or two I was pretty upset,” Gesell said, “but you can’t dwell on things like that. You’ve just got to move on and just know that the next time I get a chance like that, I’ll step up there with confidence and knock them down.”
Gesell has a reason for his confidence. He leads the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio at 5.4-to-1. Illinois’ Jaylon Tate is second at 3.5-to-1. Gesell averages 21 minutes a game — third most on the team — and has posted 43 assists and only eight turnovers. Just twice has he registered two turnovers in a single game.
Gesell started the first two games at off-guard and was sluggish against Nebraska-Omaha with two turnovers and one assist. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery then moved Gesell to the point for the third game, and he registered seven assists and one turnover against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
“I haven’t noticed anything in particular but every game it’s like 5-0, 6-1, 4-0,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “He’s taking care of the ball and you look at the stats in every game around the country and assist-to-turnover ratio, and I’m so proud of him because that’s a big thing. Coach had him at the two. He was a little bit sideways at the two. Then he moves Dev (Marble) to the two and Mike to the one and throughout it all, he’s had a level head and he’s taking care of the basketball, taking good shots.”
Gesell remains a scorer as well. He averages 6.3 points with four games in double digits. He’s benefitted from his teammates Anthony Clemmons and Marble, who rank third and fourth, respectively, in Big Ten assist-to-turnover ratio. Through 12 game the Hawkeyes have 217 assists and only 125 turnovers.
Gesell’s numbers are a testament to his work ethic. He had 89 assists to 59 turnovers as a freshman but struggled against quicker and more physical defenders. So Gesell gained strength and analyzed plenty of video to evaluate his tendencies. So far it’s paid off.
“I think it also helps that guys are getting open, too,” Marble said. “Last year guys struggled getting open off the ball. Now guys are getting open and that’s taking a lot of pressure off of him. He’s a lot more comfortable up top.
“If you’re a guy on an island, it’s kind of tough for him to take care of the ball throughout a whole season. We’ve done a better job of getting open and getting in a position to where he can get us the ball.”
The loss at No. 13 Iowa State showed Gesell where improvement is necessary for the team to reach its potential. But No. 25 Iowa (10-2) enters its final non-conference game Sunday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff with plenty of confidence.
“We’re obviously a deep team, an experienced team,” Gesell said. “We’ve got guys that can step up at any time. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves. We know that we’re right there in becoming a great team. We’re a very good team right now but a few more strides, we’ll be a great team. We have lots of chances to show that.”