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IOWA CITY — Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff is proud of his team and he wants everybody to know it.
Uthoff, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 18.9 points a game, likes how the Hawkeyes embody toughness, a trait that often was questioned of his previous teams. But the way the Hawkeyes battled for 40 minutes in sweeps of Michigan State and Purdue has led Uthoff to verbally beat his chest for a moment. His words now are posted inside the Michigan State locker room, according to the Lansing State Journal.
After the Hawkeyes (16-3, 7-0 Big Ten) dispatched the Spartans 76-59 at the Breslin Center, Uthoff was asked if he was surprised the Spartans didn’t give Iowa much of a fight in either game. Uthoff showed some fire in his comments to reporters — including The Gazette — after the game. Those snippets include:
“Just going back to toughness. We knew we were the better team from the get-go. We wanted to go out and prove it. And we did.
“They fought us as hard as they could. I think they gave us their best fight. Both times.”
Let the irony of this situation settle in for a second. Michigan State, which bullied Iowa mentally and physically nine consecutive times before this season, now uses an Iowa player’s comments about toughness as motivation.
When asked if he had heard if Michigan State had posted his quotes, Uthoff replied, “I figured.” Then he expanded.
“The only reason why I made those comments was that it was a Michigan State reporter here like, ‘Are you more surprised you didn’t get more fight from Michigan State?’” Uthoff said. “They gave us their best fight. Both times. You can’t deny they gave us their best fight and we withstood that and came out as the team on top.
“I’m not going to shy away from how good our team is and how well we’ve been playing.”
The Hawkeyes have won nine straight games — including all seven Big Ten contests — to reach the top five for the first time since 1989. Iowa is ranked third by the Associated Press — the program’s highest ranking since Dec. 8, 1987 — and fourth in the USA Today/Coaches poll.
Six of Iowa’s seven league wins have come by double digits. The Hawkeyes swept Michigan State by a combined 30 points this year, including a 17-point pounding at the Breslin Center. It was the team’s first win in East Lansing in 23 years.
This version appears tougher in the face of adversity when compared to previous seasons. When opponents make a run, Iowa retaliates. When Purdue took a 31-24 lead on Sunday, the Hawkeyes knocked down a pair of 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to cut their deficit to one point. When trailing by two points to start the second half, Iowa cruised on a 23-6 run to take control.
“To know we’ve got a tough team, mentally and physically, is great to see,” Iowa center Adam Woodbury said. “We’re not going to wither under pressure. We’ve played in some tough environments, and we’ve continued to succeed. We think we’re able to compete in any environment against any team.”
2. 3-POINT SHOOTING. Iowa drilled 11 of 20 3-pointers in an 83-71 win against Purdue on Sunday. During a second-half run, five different Iowa players hit 3-pointers as part of a 23-6 run to open the half.
The Hawkeyes have shot 10 or more 3-pointers in each of their last four games. The team has averaged 41 percent from 3-point range, second-best in school history and third in the Big Ten. In league-only action, Iowa ranks first at 43.7 percent.
It’s an odd shift for a team that shot just 33.3 percent from 3-point range last year. Iowa guard Anthony Clemmons led the Hawkeyes last year at 37.3 percent. This year Iowa has five key players shooting at least 39 percent.
So how does that happen? Other than personnel shifts giving younger players opportunities to play, there are other aspects as to why Iowa’s shooting is improved.
“We’re better at spacing the floor, and we’ve got four people who can shoot 3s or maybe five at any given time,” Uthoff said. “So that enables us to space the floor better.”
Last year Iowa was heavy in the post with Aaron White at power forward and a talented tandem of Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni at center. Iowa averaged about 17 3-point attempts a game last year. This year, the Hawkeyes put up 22.6. Iowa makes about 9.3 3-pointers a night this year, while last year it was 5.6.
In 34 games last year, Iowa made 192 3-pointers. In 19 games this year, the Hawkeyes have made 176.
“I think that’s why we’re having a great year, a lot of good shooters this year are knocking down shots,” Iowa guard Peter Jok said. “Our point guards are finding everybody.”
“We have a lot of confidence on our team, and that confidence is contagious,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “It allows everyone on the team to come in and not be afraid to make plays. Our bench has been tremendous all year. We have shooters everywhere on this team. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re so hard to guard.”
3. LOOKING BACK/FORWARD. Both Michigan State and Purdue are 17-4 and half of their losses have come to Iowa. Michigan is 15-5 overall (5-2 in Big Ten play), and lost 82-71 in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes’ first seven Big Ten opponents are a combined 101-44 overall (even when 6-14 Rutgers is included). After their clash at No. 7 Maryland (17-3) on Thursday, Iowa’s schedule lightens up on paper. In its final 10 Big Ten games, only four are against teams (Indiana twice, at Ohio State, at Michigan) with winning league records. The other six (Penn State twice, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin) are a combined 12-32 in Big Ten play.
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