STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – It’s got to be the shoes. Right, money?
“Got to be,” Mike Gesell said.
Iowa’s red-headed sophomore point guard switched to gold shoes four games ago, and he’s played pretty well since then.
“I’m kind of a superstitious guy,” Gesell said. “If I’m playing well, I don’t change that much. So you’ll probably see me keep wearing them.”
Up next is a trip to Indiana on Tuesday. A chance for the Hawkeyes to reach 20 victories before March Madness officially arrives. A chance to win a fifth Big Ten Conference road game for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
This is why Gesell and Adam Woodbury, his roommate and longtime AAU teammate, signed with Iowa in the fall of 2011, giving Iowa coach Fran McCaffery his first two top-100 recruits.
“I knew when I was coming here they were building something special, and I wanted to be a part of it,” the 7-foot-1 Woodbury said. “I think we’re finally turning the corner to where we can be an elite team in this country and I think we’re finally making a statement in these road games.”
Iowa on Saturday recorded its fourth road victory of the Big Ten season, and third straight, with an 82-70 victory against Penn State.
Woodbury and Gesell are playing the most consistent basketball of their college careers and taking their games to another level.
“They are, but I’m not surprised,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “They’re really good players. But they sort of expect it from themselves. I think that’s the critical thing. We can’t want it for them. They have to expect it from themselves. And that’s what they do. They’re gamers. They learn from their mistakes. And they work and prepare to get better.”
Expectations come with top-100 reputations. Those expectations have been particularly unkind — and unfair — to Woodbury. Internet message boards have been brutal at times. Some questioned whether he could even dunk. After catching a bounce pass from Devyn Marble and hammering it home against Michigan on Feb. 8, Woodbury ran back down the floor with his finger over his lips. Shush … he silenced his critics.
“Just a spur of the moment thing,” Woodbury said.
After the Michigan game, McCaffery passed paths with Lance Woodbury, Adam’s dad.
“How about the big fella,” McCaffery told the elder Woodbury, “throwing it down.”
Woodbury is not a stat-sheet stuffer — he’s averaging 5.7 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. His ability to set screens, pass the ball and run the floor are just as important to Iowa’s success.
“I’m not trying to conquer the world,” Woodbury said. “I’m just trying to do the little things to make my team better.”
One big area of improvement is Woodbury’s free-throw shooting. He made 51.0 percent of his attempts from the line a season ago. He’s at 71.4 this season. After making 7-of-8 against Penn State, he got a text message from Ras Vanderloo, his coach at Sioux City East.
“He said, ‘What’s up with you making all these free throws?’ ” Woodbury said. “I told him it was because my coaching in high school held me back.”
In truth, the transformation has taken hours and hours of hard work.
“I’ve worked a lot with coach (Kirk) Speraw, I’ve watched a lot of film,” Woodbury said. “He’s really helped me with my stroke. The coaches have all been trying to instill confidence in me during practice. And I think it’s finally paying off.”
Gesell and Woodbury are gym rats, challenging each other to get better when no one is watching.
“We go to the gym a lot together,’ Woodbury said. “I see him working. He pushes me. I try to push him.”
Gesell, who has made a combined 6-of-7 3-pointers during the last two games, has 21 assists to seven turnovers in the four games since going with gold shoes. He’s scored in double figures three times. And he leads the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio.
It’s got to be the shoes.
Rick Brown, a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year, covers Hawkeyes basketball for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball