IOWA CITY — They’re 16-3. They’ve reeled off five Big Ten victories in 15 days, more than it had all of last season. They likely are inside or near the top 20 when the new rankings come out Monday.
Selection Sunday is two months out, but this Iowa men’s basketball team has positioned itself through Jan. 20 to have its name called come mid-March.
It has experience. It has oodles of offensive firepower. The defense still takes an occasional vacation, but is vastly improved since last year’s 14-19 dumpster fire.
“I wouldn’t want to play them in the postseason,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after the Hawkeyes dismantled his team 95-71 Sunday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, “because of that inside-out mentality and the ability to score in transition.
“I’ve said it many times; I think Iowa is one of the top three teams in our league talent-wise.”
But, just how good is this Iowa team?
It has knocked off the programs in the middle or at the bottom of the Big Ten pecking order — Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State. The road wins against Northwestern and Penn State were noteworthy with leading scorer Tyler Cook out.
Conversely, in its opportunities against the upper-tier, it has been a disaster. The Hawkeyes were blown out at Michigan State and Purdue — two of the more difficult venues to play at in the Big Ten.
In the next two weeks, Iowa has two of the conference’s giants coming into its arena — Michigan State (Thursday) and Michigan (Feb. 1.) — sandwiched around a road trip to Minnesota.
Iowa can make the Big Dance dropping both of those games, but a split or even possibly two wins changes the entire perception of this group.
Besides a signature win or two on its resume, it gives the thought this team could have staying power in March.
“We feel like we’re one of those top teams in the Big Ten, but obviously we’ve got to prove that and beat those teams,” freshman Joe Wieskamp said following a 24-point performance where he didn’t miss a shot in eight attempts. “It starts with Michigan State on Thursday.”
Wieskamp remembers the film session the day after Iowa was humbled 90-68 in East Lansing on Dec. 3.
“It was not fun,” he said. “We had a lot of mistakes in that game. We’re really going to lock into them, really get focused and get after them on Thursday.”
There has been a lot to like about this Iowa team.
Cook is an athletic freak and has shown he can take over games. Luka Garza, out for much of the preseason with a nine-pound cyst in his spleen, has evolved into a consistent low-post presence.
Isaiah Moss has turned a corner in his development on both ends of the court. Jordan Bohannon has proved his worth with late-game heroics against Nebraska and Penn State.
Nicholas Baer, Connor McCaffery and Ryan Kriener have had moments of brilliance off the bench. Even Maishe Dailey has brought energy on the defensive end of the floor in spurts.
And Wieskamp, who has reached double figures in nine of the last 10 games, is making a case as one of the four or five best freshmen in the conference.
You are seeing a team that is connected, more mature and has more resolve.
Iowa has won with offense, evident by the 89 points it scored at Penn State. Or the arena-record 68 percent it shot Sunday where it made 15 of 21 shots from beyond the arc and had 29 assists on 34 baskets.
It has played well on defense at times, too.
It stymied Ohio State to 26 first-half points. It limited Illinois, coming off a 95-point performance against Minnesota, to 24 points in the first half.
"We were really locked in and we were grinding hard," coach Fran McCaffery said.
We didn't see that very often last season.
“There were too many instances last year where a team would go on a 15-4 run and that’d be game,” Garza said. “This year, we’re finding a way to stand back up and throw our punch.
“We’re communicating a lot better. We just have a lot better mindset, a more positive mindset. We’re not hanging our heads.”
They’ve been dropped to the canvas a couple times this year. On the scoreboard. And with injuries.
Each time, it has mustered a response. That's a sign of growth.
“I’m not sure if it is a maturity thing, but we never get too down,” Connor McCaffery said. “It is never we’ve got to bounce back from this. We don’t want to be too high right now or don’t want to get too low.
“We just need to keep fighting, keep playing. That’s what we’re doing.”
So far, the resume looks good.
If it can add a win or two over Michigan State and Michigan, it would look even rosier.