Published Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 7:56 pm / Updated at 12:41 am
basketball
Barfknecht: Hawkeyes, Wolverines have become two of Big Ten’s best

Find a television Wednesday night at 6 and tune in to the Big Ten Network. You’ll thank me later.

In a conference blessed with intriguing men’s basketball matchups, No. 10 Iowa at No. 21 Michigan comes highly recommended. This isn’t just two of the Big Ten’s best teams with perhaps the top two candidates right now for player of the year.

It’s two of the best stories.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery inherited a dumpster fire four years ago.

His predecessor — Todd Lickliter from the hallowed Butler coaching tree — had turned Hawkeye basketball into a hot mess the same way his mentor, Barry Collier, did at Nebraska. Their “magic” formula: mediocre recruits, a bore-you-to-tears offense and failure to engage fans and former players.

Smartly, Iowa recognized this after only three years and canned him. (It took Nebraska six to figure out it had the wrong guy, and then waited for him to resign instead of making a change.)

So in comes McCaffery, bringing with him enthusiasm, swagger, a fast-paced attack and the ability to identify and attract a lot of long and strong players who actually make baskets. Novel ideas, eh?

Now, the Hawkeyes (15-3, 4-1) are in the Top 10 for the first time in 12 years.

They might be higher if McCaffery hadn’t blown his stack in a loss at Wisconsin and gotten ejected while his team was still ahead.

But that looks like a master stroke of tone-setting now. One early setback in that manner might be worth four wins later. It showed Iowa isn’t taking stink from anybody, anywhere, anytime this season.

The Hawkeyes followed up with a smashing of Northwestern, a rally from nine points down in the second half to win at No. 3 Ohio State and a drilling of surprising Minnesota. In the final 21 minutes, Iowa blitzed the Gophers 61-30.

“They’ve done a great job of recruiting,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “You look how they go deeper and deeper in their bench and there’s no drop-off.”

Folks, this is the type of team you see in the Final Four. Am I predicting that? Not yet. But notice I didn’t say no.

Senior wing Roy Devyn Marble, who moved off the point after two games so Mike Gesell from South Sioux City, Neb., could fully orchestrate the offense, has turned into a player of the year threat scoring 16.3 points a game.

So has his counterpart at Michigan, sophomore wing Nik Stauskas.

Known last year as a standstill 3-point shooter — which was all he needed to be with All-America point guard Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. handling the ball — Stauskas has emerged as a multi-threat slasher and scorer.

He leads the Big Ten at 18 points a game, and has 60 assists to 24 turnovers.

“He’s not a standstill,” McCaffery said. “He can hit a step-back 3 off a double crossover. When you run at him, he can put it on the deck. And if you think he’s going to shoot in a certain situation, he’ll get an assist.

“That’s the way the great ones play.”

Michigan (13-4, 5-0) has just one senior and one junior, and lost All-America center Mitch McGary in early January to back surgery.

But sophomores Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert have kept the defending national runner-up Wolverines not only relevant but in Big Ten title contention.

Iowa averages 86 points a game, Michigan 77. Enjoy what should be another step toward the “re-beautification” of basketball.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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