IOWA CITY, Iowa --- In a year filled with new experiences, Mike Gesell faces another one on Saturday.
The Iowa freshman is preparing for a homecoming of sorts when Iowa visits Nebraska at 1 p.m.
The court at the Bob Devaney Sports Center is familiar territory for Gesell, who played there for South Sioux City in Nebraska state high school championship games in each of the last three seasons.
Only five players in the state’s history have scored more than the 209 points Gesell collected during three state tournament appearances for South Sioux City, which won Class B state titles at the Lincoln arena in 2010 and 2011 before losing a 64-61 final to Scottsbluff in 2012.
Saturday, Gesell hopes to return to his winning ways on a court which holds great memories for the four-time all-state selection and two-time Nebraska Gatorade player of the year.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun. I have a lot of family and friends who are going to make the trip and it’s going to be great to see all of them,” Gesell said. “I’m fortunate to have the kind of support that they have given me over the years.”
That support has crossed state lines.
Students at South Sioux City High School have made t-shirts that read “Nebraskans for Iowa basketball” that include Gesell’s name and number, shirts and many will likely be visible in good quantity when the Hawkeyes take the floor for their weather-delayed game against the Cornhuskers.
“This is a game that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, but I know I have to keep my focus,” said Gesell, who was recruited by former Nebraska coach Doc Sadler’s staff but had already signed with Iowa before Tim Miles was hired last spring. “The most important thing is that this is our next game and it’s a game we need to win. I can’t get caught up in the off-court stuff.”
That approach will serve Gesell well, teammate Devyn Marble said.
Two seasons ago, the Michigan native experienced what Gesell is going through when Iowa played at Michigan and Michigan State during his freshman season.
“It is different and he’ll feel a little different because you know that there are a lot of family members and some friends there watching you, but you can’t get caught up in that,” Marble said.
“You have to block it out and play the game. Then you can say ‘Hi.’ That can be tough to do, because a lot of times those people don’t get many opportunities to watch in person. It’s a big day for them, too. But, the game has to come first.”
That hasn’t been an issue for Gesell.
A starter in each of Iowa’s 26 games, his introduction to college level has included a few unexpected twists and turns.
He began the season as the Hawkeyes’ starting point guard, but moved to a shooting guard’s position eight games into the season when Anthony Clemmons entered the lineup.
Gesell opened there 13 times before moving back to the point six games ago when Clemmons returned to a reserve role.
Coach Fran McCaffery believes the experience has benefited Gesell in several ways, particularly in allowing him to develop a more offensive mindset when he is running the point for Iowa.
“It’s not easy for a freshman to make the moves that we’ve asked Mike to make, but he has made them and he has shuffled back and forth from the point to shooting guard with ease,” McCaffery said.
“Early on, he wasn’t shooting enough when we had him at the point and I think moving him out of that role, he got more comfortable shooting the ball. He’s been more aggressive offensively since we moved him back to the point and that’s good for us. We need him to be a point that shoots it well and he’s giving us that now.”
Gesell currently averages 9.1 points and has scored in double figures 12 times, including in four of Iowa’s last five games.
He had a season-high four steals to go with 11 points in Sunday’s win over Minnesota and is growing more comfortable by the game at the controls of the Iowa offense.
“I’m learning that I have to stay aggressive and look for my shot as I try to push the ball up the court,” Gesell said. “I’m in a position where I can help us control the tempo of the game. It’s something I’m used to, but I had to learn it over again at this level. I’m feeling at home again.”
Saturday, he hopes to show the people from his home state that as well.
“It’s going to be good going out there, but it would feel even better to go there and win,” Gesell said.