IOWA CITY — When Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery announced prior to this season that senior Devyn Marble was going to be his point guard, it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for Mike Gesell.
After all, Gesell was recruited out of South Sioux City (Neb.) High School to be the Hawkeyes’ floor general. A national top 100 recruit, it was assumed he would be the team’s point guard for the next four seasons. Now, as a sophomore, the reins were being given to someone else.
Just two games into the season, McCaffery realized his mistake. He made the 6-foot-1 Gesell the point guard with Marble moving off the ball.
The results speak for themselves. The Hawkeyes are ninth in the country in scoring, are ranked No. 16 in the latest Associated Press poll, are well on their way to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006, and Marble's name is being bandied about as a Big Ten player of the year candidate.
“I think it was better for Mike to have it," McCaffery said. “We essentially recruited him to be that guy. Then we moved him off the ball, which he willingly accepted. Not a lot of guys would do that. It’s like ‘Whatever you need me to do I’ll do.’
“But as we continued to evaluate it, we just needed to get Dev more shots and to get him the ball in different locations, and we needed to get Mike the ball and let him engineer it and throw ahead."
The transition hasn’t been super smooth. Gesell has endured a season-long struggle between being careful and being assertive.
But after engineering an 85-67 demolition of first-place Michigan last Saturday in Iowa City, it would appear Gesell has found the right blend of reckless and restraint.
"I've learned a lot in the past year," Gesell said after that game. “A lot of it came from watching film. I'm just trying to be aggressive. When I'm aggressive, it opens up things for other guys. Tonight I was just finding Dev, finding our shooters. It's really not that hard of a job when you've got guys that can score like that."
Gesell never was terrible at taking care of the basketball, but he’s improved immensely in that area at the college level.
As a freshman last season, he had a respectable assist/turnover ratio of 1.5, which was third best on the Iowa team.
This season he is at 3.2. That leads the Big Ten and is 13th best in the country. He has committed only 28 turnovers in 24 games, less than half as many as such highly regarded guards as Ohio State’s Aaron Craft (57), Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell (61) and Penn State’s Tim Frazier (71).
Gesell said McCaffery, who was a point guard himself, "really gets after me when I do make turnovers or do dumb plays in practice."
But McCaffery said he’d love to see Gesell be a little less careful.
“He’s clearly conscientious with the basketball, but sometimes I want him to just go and make a play because he has that ability," McCaffery said. “I’ve seen it and we’re better when he does it."
McCaffery said Gesell "has the ability to be a really special player.
“He’s just one those guys who is so conscientious and such a team guy that he wanted to run the offense and get his teammates involved and help us to win," the coach added. “But what I’ve tried to get him to understand is we need him to be aggressive, we need him to be a scorer, we need him to have that mentality for us to be the best team we can be. And then we’ll have a better chance to win if he would just trust his talent and go be aggressive."
Gesell is doing that more and more, as evidenced by the Michigan game. He scored 10 points, matched his career high with eight assists and still had only one turnover. He assisted on the first four baskets of the game as the Hawkeyes roared away to their biggest win of the season.
Marble, who scored 26 points in the game, said it was Gesell’s best game yet. Almost everyone agreed.
"I think he did a great job of just making the plays when it was there ..." junior forward Aaron White said. “He's didn’t force anything. He loaded up Dev when Dev was hot. He loaded up other guys. He didn't turn the ball over."
Sophomore center Adam Woodbury, who played with Gesell on AAU teams long before they came to Iowa, has been impressed by the transformation.
"In high school, he was a scorer. No doubt about that," Woodbury said. “But now every time he goes out there he gets better. Playing the point at the Division I level is not easy, but he's getting used to it and he's playing really well right now."