IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok have dominated the headlines for the Hawkeyes this season.
But Iowa might not be headed to its third straight NCAA Tournament - a feat it hasn't accomplished in over two decades - without senior point guard Mike Gesell.
Gesell, whose recruitment was an important part of coach Fran McCaffery's rebuilding job, has grown from a four-star prep to an unheralded star and a steadying presence for the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes (21-9, 12-6 Big Ten). They open league tournament play Thursday against either Minnesota or Illinois.
''He's constantly in attack mode and he's got great vision. He wants to give the ball up. He's a willing passer and he can score, so you've got to play it straight. He just wants to win,'' McCaffery.
Gesell and center Adam Woodbury, both AAU teammates from the Sioux City area straddling the Iowa-Nebraska border, committed to Iowa at a time when the Hawkeyes seemed years away from returning to national relevance.
Gesell never wound up becoming as well known as Uthoff and Jok - or even stars Devyn Marble and Aaron White before him. He'll simply have to settle for being invaluable to the Hawkeyes since the day he signed his letter of intent.
McCaffery knew right away what he had in the 6-foot-2 Gesell, at the time a rare consensus top-100 recruit for Iowa. Gesell started 30 games as a freshman and helped Iowa reach the NIT finals, where he scored a then-career high 13 points.
Gesell's led the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore as Iowa snapped an eight-year NCAA tournament drought.
As a junior, Gesell set a mark that perhaps best defines his career, becoming the first Big Ten player in seven years with no points but at least nine assists in a game.
A nagging elbow injury got so bad by the end of that year that Gesell could barely shoot a jumper, but McCaffery knew he was too important to keep out of the starting lineup. Gesell rewarded his coach's faith in him with 15 points and six assists as Iowa beat Davidson for its first NCAA win since 2001.
''The thing I'm most proud about in my journey as a Hawkeye is just the strides we've made every single year. (McCaffery) recruited me here when we were in a bit of a rebuilding period. I knew we had the guys and the coaching staff to be successful,'' Gesell said. ''It's not easy to do.''
This season, Gesell has been a unifying force for a team that has survived periods of ups and downs.
Gesell will enter the Big Ten tournament ranked third in the league with 6.2 assists per game. Gesell's minutes (30), field goal percentage (41.2), 3-point percentage (37.5) and rebounds (3.2) per game are all career highs.
Gesell showed he can carry the Hawkeyes when asked. He had a career-high 25 points as Uthoff fought through foul trouble in an 83-70 win over then-No. 1 Michigan State in the Big Ten opener that precipitated Iowa's rise into the Top 25.
He also had 11 assists with just one turnover on Saturday, helping the Hawkeyes snap a four-game losing streak with a win at Michigan.
''Pete and I take most of the shots. But when you have guys who, in a key situation, can drain a 3, get to the basket with (Gesell) getting in the lane and make a big play, it's huge for us,'' Uthoff said.
Iowa will likely lean on Uthoff and Jok, both All-Big Ten selections, in the postseason as well. But for the Hawkeyes, knowing that they also have a senior point guard to depend on is a comforting thought.
''Mike's been doing it for four years and won a lot of games with him and his leadership,'' McCaffery said. ''He's crucial.''
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