Iowa expects to contend for a Big Ten title this season after years of mediocrity.
The 22nd-ranked Hawkeyes are about to get the truest measure yet of their potential.
Iowa (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten) will open road play in the Big Ten on Sunday against No. 4 Wisconsin, one of the hottest teams in the country. The Badgers are 14-0, and on Thursday they raced out to a 40-14 halftime lead in a blowout win at Northwestern.
That's not all the Hawkeyes will have to worry about, either.
Wisconsin's fans should be especially riled up to let Badgers transfer Jarrod Uthoff know how they feel about his first trip back in an Iowa uniform.
"It'll be an unbelievably difficult environment. But we've played in front of those already and we're going to play in a lot more. So to me, it's just another opportunity to see where we are," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "You're playing the fourth-ranked team in the country, who is undefeated, on the road in a hostile environment. That will identify who we are. Can we play against a really good team and consistently compete to where we can win that game?"
Iowa (12-2, 1-0) at Wisconsin (14-0, 1-0)
Tonight, 7:06 p.m.
At Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
TV: Big Ten Network
Wisconsin figures to provide the toughest challenge to Iowa's explosive, high-scoring offense so far. The Badgers' defense is ranked 12th in the country, and their slower tempo could give the more aggressive Hawkeyes fits.
But McCaffery has held his own against Wisconsin of late, winning three of the last four even though none of those Iowa teams reached the NCAA tournament. Last season, the Hawkeyes held off the Badgers 70-66 in Iowa City and pushed them to double overtime on the road, losing 74-70.
"We've played consistently well in those games. We've run a little bit - and they're running a little more this year - and we've worked into their style of play and tried to figure out how our style of play can be effective in that environment," McCaffery said.
One of the main reasons Iowa has averaged a Big Ten-best 87.1 points per game this season has been Uthoff. He's scoring nearly 11 points and grabbing a team-best 6.5 rebounds despite coming off the bench.
On Sunday, he'll likely be walking into the most hostile gym of his career.
Uthoff's departure from Wisconsin in 2012 drew national attention, with the Badgers saying he should not be allowed to transfer to another Big Ten school. The 6-foot-8 Uthoff, a former Iowa Mr. Basketball, went to Iowa anyway.
McCaffery dismissed any notion that the crowd will affect Uthoff. McCaffery pointed out that Wisconsin's Ben Brust, a one-time Iowa recruit, never seemed bothered by heckling in Iowa City.
McCaffery also doesn't think a return to Madison should be a source of added inspiration to Uthoff.
"I would hope he'd bring the same fire every game," McCaffery said. "Here's a guy who wants to be a good player, who wants to be on a team that wins championships, who wants to go the NCAA tournament and that's the next game on our schedule. I'd like to think he'd play the same way against Nebraska, the same way against Wisconsin, the same way against Northwestern and all the way down the line."
The Hawkeyes have had some decent wins, most notably against Xavier and Notre Dame. But they also blew double-digit leads against the two best teams they've played; No. 11 Villanova on a neutral floor and No. 13 Iowa State on the road, and lost both games.
Another loss against a top opponent wouldn't sink Iowa's season. But a win at Wisconsin would help establish Iowa as a true contender for the Big Ten title.
"If you win that game, then obviously it has a great impact on how you're viewed, what your abilities are to win a championship, what your resume is moving forward," McCaffery said. "But at the same time, if you can grow individually, say you don't win. But did you make progress? Can you say we played well ... certain guys played well, certain guys made progress? It's all part of the journey."