IOWA CITY — The Iowa Hawkeyes are not the same basketball team that began Big Ten play a month ago with a pair of losses.

The question now: Have they improved enough to make an extended run through the Big Ten schedule, which resumes today, and ultimately land a berth in the NCAA Tournament?

It shouldn’t take too long to get the answer. The Hawkeyes host a 12-3 Michigan team at 6 p.m. today in their Big Ten re-opener.

The Iowa team that played the first month of the regular season competed hard only in spurts, was inconsistent on defense, turned the ball over way too much, tried too hard to make spectacular plays and lacked confidence.

Since then, the Hawkeyes have corrected most of those issues and have strung together five straight victories, the last four against teams that were .500 or better at the time they played them.

Their defense, in both the zone and man-to-man, is noticeably better. The lengthy lapses in effort and execution have disappeared.

They seem to get a little better with each passing game. They followed a victory over a good Colorado team with a thorough thumping of Northern Illinois on Friday and go into tonight’s game brimming with a newfound swagger.

“We had to start winning some games and we had to beat some good teams,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said last week, prior to that 98-76 rout of Northern Illinois. “We’ve done that. I think we’ve been good in some areas. We’re still not where we need to be in some other areas. We’re still turning the ball over too much, but at least we’re able to overcome it …

“Little by little, our young guys need to develop and our veteran guys need to do what they’re supposed to do. That’s what you need when you go into conference play.’’

The Hawkeyes (9-6) are shooting 51.9 percent during the five-game win streak and have outrebounded opponents by nearly 10 per game.

But doing that against respectable mid-majors such as NIU, Drake and Southern Utah is one thing. Doing it in the Big Ten will be tougher.

This shapes up as a very important week for McCaffery’s team. After facing Michigan tonight, it plays at home again Thursday against Ohio State, one of only three teams to get off to a 2-0 start in the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes already are 0-2 in the Big Ten because of those early-December losses to Penn State and Indiana. They can’t afford to start 0-4 in league play, especially since three of those losses would be at home.

QUESTIONABLE COMPETITION: Michigan coach John Beilein is one of the most candid coaches around and he demonstrated that after his team defeated Jacksonville 76-51 in its final non-conference game Saturday.

The Wolverines have allowed 60 or fewer points in four consecutive games, but Beilein said he thinks that’s at least partially a product of some weak competition. In addition to Jacksonville, the victims in those games were Texas, Detroit and Alabama A&M.

“I see a lot of people that are missing shots that the Big Ten will make,” Beilein said. “That’s my assessment … I’ll believe it more when we’re doing it every night.”


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