Iowa got over its lengthy losing streak just as the regular season came to a close. It's now time to win a Big Ten tournament game for the first time in three years.
The 20th-ranked Hawkeyes aim to advance to the quarterfinals Thursday in Indianapolis against Illinois, which kicked the tournament off with its biggest blowout of the season.
Iowa (21-9) grabbed the No. 5 seed with Saturday's 71-61 win at Michigan as Jarrod Uthoff poured in 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting. It was the unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection's best shooting effort in conference play and followed a 31.6 percent stretch over the Hawkeyes' four-game losing streak.
The team had shot 38.3 percent on the skid, though none of its defeats this season have come by more than eight points. The Hawkeyes shot 45.2 percent against the Wolverines but continued to struggle with their outside shot. Over the last six games, they've hit 31.7 percent after making 39.7 over their 19-5 start.
"OK, we lost some close games," coach Fran McCaffery said. " ... So what do we have to do at the start of the game, what do we have to do defensively, what do we have to do down the stretch, can we execute better, can we call different sets, do we have to change defenses, are we in the right defense, are the right guys getting shots? That's all you do, try to analyze it."
The guy doing most of the distributing to those right guys is Mike Gesell, who had 11 assists with one turnover against Michigan. The senior point guard ranks third in the conference with 6.2 assists per game and is second in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.32. He's gone his last 10 games without committing more than two turnovers.
"He's constantly in attack mode and he's got great vision," McCaffery said. "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."
He hasn't done that in the conference tournament since his first try, and the school's three straight losses since defeating Northwestern in the opening round in 2013 have come with Gesell going 4 of 20 from the field. The Hawkeyes have shot 33.7 percent in those games with last season's 67-58 loss to No. 13 seed Penn State coming on 26.3 percent.
"It was one of those games where we were in pretty good shape and they caught fire," McCaffery said. "We didn't get a stop when we needed it. The year before, (No. 11 seed) Northwestern really shot it well that game. And guys that normally don't make shots were making step-back 3s. Those are the kind of things that happen sometimes in tournament play. So we'll execute; we'll be making the shots we need to make."
Iowa hasn't won two in a row since a three-game run peaked with a 77-65 victory at Illinois (14-18) on Feb. 7, its fifth in the last six meetings.
An Illinois victory would be its first time winning more than a game in the tournament since reaching the title game in 2008 before losing to Wisconsin. But the last time 12th-seeded Illinois beat a team not named Minnesota or Rutgers was Jan. 10 at home over then-No. 20 Purdue.
Nevertheless, the Fighting Illini's 85-52 opening-round win over the Golden Gophers on Wednesday was impressive. Michael Finke had 17 points, and the freshman reserve hit 5 of 7 from 3-point range to pace a season-best 14-of-26 team effort.
"The great thing was that we got all of those 3s from within the offense," said junior Malcolm Hill, who's averaged 21.3 points and shot 50.0 percent over his last four games. "We really do tell Finke to keep shooting the ball. I have been getting mad at him for passing up shots. They fell for him today."