The Iowa Hawkeyes are not the same basketball team that began Big Ten play a month ago with a pair of losses.
The question now: Have they improved enough to make an extended run through the Big Ten schedule, which resumes today, and ultimately land a berth in the NCAA tournament?
It shouldn’t take too long to get the answer. The Hawkeyes host a 12-3 Michigan team at 6 p.m. today in their Big Ten re-opener.
The Iowa team that played the first month of the regular season competed hard only in spurts, was inconsistent on defense, turned the ball over way too much, tried too hard to make spectacular plays and lacked confidence.
Since then, the Hawkeyes have corrected most of those issues and have strung together five straight victories, the last four against teams that were .500 or better at the time they played them.
Their defense, in both the zone and man-to-man, is noticeably better. The lengthy lapses in effort and execution have disappeared.
They seem to get a little better with each passing game. They followed a victory over a good Colorado team with a thorough thumping of Northern Illinois on Friday and go into tonight’s game brimming with a newfound swagger.
“We had to start winning some games and we had to beat some good teams,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said last week, prior to that 98-76 rout of Northern Illinois. “We’ve done that. I think we’ve been good in some areas. We’re still not where we need to be in some other areas. We’re still turning the ball over too much, but at least we’re able to overcome it …
“Little by little, our young guys need to develop and our veteran guys need to do what they’re supposed to do. That’s what you need when you go into conference play.’’
The Hawkeyes (9-6) even cut down on the turnovers against NIU while shooting 58.1 percent from field and equaling a school record by compiling a remarkable 34 assists on 36 made field goals.
They are shooting 51.9 percent during the five-game win streak and have outrebounded opponents by nearly 10 per game.
But doing that against respectable mid-majors such as NIU, Drake and Southern Utah is one thing. Doing it in the Big Ten will be tougher.
This shapes up as a very important week for McCaffery’s team. After facing Michigan tonight, it plays at home again Thursday against Ohio State, one of only three teams to get off to a 2-0 start in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes already are 0-2 in the Big Ten because of those early-December losses to Penn State and Indiana. They can’t afford to start 0-4 in league play, especially since three of those losses would be at home.
It would be very, very difficult to get to the NCAA tournament from there.
In order to even be considered for a berth in the Big Dance, one of their chief goals, the Hawkeyes probably need to go at least 10-6 the rest of the way. That would put them at 19-12, 10-8 in the Big Ten, heading into the conference tournament.
Questionable competition: Michigan coach John Beilein is one of the most candid coaches around and he demonstrated that after his team defeated Jacksonville 76-51 in its final non-conference game Saturday.
The Wolverines have allowed 60 points or less in four consecutive games, but Beilein said he thinks that’s at least partially a product of some weak competition. In addition to Jacksonville, the victims in those games were Texas, Detroit and Alabama A&M.
"I see a lot of people that are missing shots that the Big Ten will make," Beilein said. "That's my assessment … I'll believe it more when we're doing it every night."
Assertive Isaiah: One thing Iowa seems to have accomplished in its first 15 games: It has gotten Isaiah Moss to become more assertive.
Following an uneven redshirt freshman season a year ago, Moss needed to step forward as a major offensive force to help fill the void left by the graduated Peter Jok. Except for a few games, that has happened.
Moss has attempted 22 more shots than any other player on the Iowa roster. He is putting up 10 field goal attempts per game compared to 8.5 by Jordan Bohannon and 8.3 by scoring leader Tyler Cook.
The percentages haven’t necessarily been great. Moss has made just 43.3 percent of his shots from the field and is shooting 37.1 percent from 3-point range, but the 6-foot-5 sophomore does lead the Hawkeyes in free throw percentage (88.9) and is second on the team at 12.0 points per game.
“When he’s in attack mode and he’s scoring and mixing it up, we’re a better team,’’ McCaffery said. “For him, I think he’s minimized his mistakes. I think he’s a better passer. His defense has always been solid and I think it’s improving. With his experience, I think what you’re seeing is a guy that’s becoming more confident in pretty much everything he does.’’
Weekly honor?: Because Monday was a holiday, the Big Ten will not name its players of the week until today, but Iowa's Luka Garza is a good bet to be the league's freshman of the week.
The 6-11 center collected a career-high 25 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots in only 16 minutes of action against Northern Illinois. He was eight for eight from the field, including three 3-point field goals.