Jarrod Uthoff sat on the Wisconsin bench, a redshirt freshman, when underdog Iowa came to the Kohl Center on New Year’s Eve 2011 and beat the 11th-ranked Badgers.
Uthoff returns to Madison on Sunday, in an Iowa uniform. A Big Ten duel, between Top 25 rivals, one that doesn’t really need another subplot, has one.
Uthoff landed at Iowa after a white-hot tug-of-war with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan that went national. Ryan limited Uthoff’s transfer choices, blocking several schools including those in the Big Ten from his shopping list. Cooler heads prevailed, and Uthoff returned to his home state to play for the Hawkeyes after a second straight redshirt season.
The fact that Uthoff, Iowa’s third-leading scorer, is even on scholarship is because of Ben Brust, the third-leading scorer on Wisconsin’s undefeated and fourth-ranked team.
Brust signed with Iowa, but asked for a release after Todd Lickliter was fired as coach following the 2009-10 season. Freshly hired Iowa coach Fran McCaffery tried to re-recruit Brust, but the Hawkeyes eventually granted the guard his walking papers.
Brust landed at Wisconsin, and the school eventually got the Big Ten to reverse a rule that said a player couldn’t transfer from one school to another and remain on scholarship.
So it will be Brust against Uthoff, in uniforms other than the ones they first picked, on Sunday. And it will be Ryan against McCaffery, in a coaching relationship both competitive and seemingly testy after the comings and goings of those two players.
I asked Ryan at the Big Ten media day in 2012 if his relationship with McCaffery was strained.
“I don’t even know why that would be a question,” Ryan said. “I don’t understand the question.”
But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. There are whispered behind-the-scenes stories about the league coaches meetings in the spring of 2012, when the Uthoff transfer saga was discussed rather, shall we say, pointedly.
McCaffery, whose wife, Margaret, was once the most valuable player of a Bo Ryan basketball camp in Platteville, Wis., took a “what’s the big deal” stance in a teleconference with reporters Friday.
“There’s no animosity, there’s no dislike, other than we’re trying to beat them and they’re trying to beat us,” McCaffery said. “I think people really make more out of it than is there. There’s really nothing there. But for some reason people want to continue to talk about it and it doesn’t make sense to me.”
McCaffery did acknowledge the fact that Uthoff will be a marked man at the Kohl Center Sunday.
“They can yell at him, but they can’t come out and defend him,” McCaffery said. “I’m not really going to pay much attention to it. Our fans have yelled at Ben.”
McCaffery added he’s concerned about silencing the Badgers’ runs “more than some people yelling at Jarrod Uthoff.”
Uthoff, a sophomore forward of few words, has politely responded when asked that he looks at Wisconsin as just another game.
“And that’s exactly how he’s looking at it,” McCaffery said.
Uthoff is shooting 57 percent from the field. He’s making 52.6 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s shooting 83 percent at the line and averaging 10.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. But he needs to consistently become more aggressive on the floor.
“We talk to him about that all the time, and keep encouraging him to be aggressive, to attack the rim, to shoot the 3,” McCaffery said.
Uthoff is the kind of player, his coach said, who is content to pass and set up his opponent.
“He doesn’t think of the game in terms of, ‘I want to get mine,’” McCaffery said.
McCaffery wants Uthoff to play “with a little more reckless abandon. And I think as the season goes on you’ll see that.”
Sunday, at the Kohl Center, would be a good time to start.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football and basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball