IOWA CITY | You can tell Bo Ryan doesn’t relish fielding questions about Jarrod Uthoff.
Asked about him Monday on the Big Ten’s weekly coaches teleconference, the Wisconsin head coach deftly tiptoed around saying anything overtly positive about the Iowa forward, who began his college career with Ryan’s Badgers.
On Uthoff’s improvement as a player, Ryan said: “Guys are supposed to develop and get better at things so Jarrod’s no different than anybody else in the league.’’
Asked about how unusual it is to have a 6-foot-9 wing player who is equally adept at hitting outside shots and swatting down the shots of others, Ryan added: “I think in our league we’ve had guys that fit that description. We have guys like that. Other teams have guys like that.’’
For what it’s worth, Uthoff also isn’t anxious to say much about Wisconsin.
But whether he’ll admit it or not, he will be eager tonight to show Ryan and some old friends just how much he has improved when Iowa plays at Wisconsin in a battle between two teams at the top of the Big Ten standings.
After a year of ups and downs, Uthoff has emerged as a major player for the Hawkeyes this season. He leads the team in 3-point field goals and is second in almost everything else, including scoring (11.8 per game), rebounds (6.7), assists (2.1), steals (1.2) and blocked shots (1.6).
He seems to become a little more comfortable with every game.
“It’s just a matter of experience,’’ Uthoff said. “The longer I’m here, the longer I play, the more comfortable I get.’’
He said he no longer worries if he makes a mistake or two. He just goes on to the next play.
“I think he's gradually become more comfortable and as a result probably has gotten more confidence ...’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He's in a better place.’’
“You can kind of see in his demeanor and the way he’s playing, he’s getting more confident in his game,’’ Iowa senior Aaron White added.
Among those who is least surprised by Uthoff’s development is Stu Ordman, who was his coach at Cedar Rapids Jefferson. Ordman, now the head coach at Iowa City Regina, recalled that Uthoff was green and uncertain when he first arrived at Jefferson, but he was all about improving his game.
“College coaches showed no interest in him in his sophomore year ...’’ Ordman said. “They started calling at the end of his junior year. I tried to get them interested earlier and they were very lukewarm. But after his junior year, to a man, they said, ‘We can’t believe how much he’s improved and we think he’s going to continue to improve.’’’
Uthoff committed to Wisconsin during the summer before his senior year and arrived in Madison as the most highly rated recruit in the Badgers’ 2011 class. While two members of that class — center Frank Kaminsky and injured point guard Traevon Jackson — have become major components for the nation’s sixth-ranked team, Uthoff was forced to redshirt as a freshman.
Not long after that season, he abruptly departed, kicking off a controversial chain of events.
Ryan said he would release Uthoff from his scholarship only if he agreed to not transfer to one of a couple dozen schools that included the entire Big Ten. The coach later backed off on his demands.
Uthoff defied the order anyway and transferred to Iowa.
After sitting out the 2012-13 season, he spent most of last season shaking off the rust from not having played for two years.
This season he has emerged as a go-to guy in the clutch for the Hawkeyes. Last Tuesday, in a 77-75 win over Minnesota, he scored Iowa’s last seven points and sank a game-winning 17-foot jumper with 3.5 seconds to go.
“He's been making big shots all year, but ... a game-winner is a whole other thing,’’ McCaffery said. “He was very comfortable. We ran it for him, and he drilled it. I think he's playing with that kind of confidence right now, and we need him to.’’
Uthoff admitted that game and that play were major confidence boosters.
“I’m getting a better feel for out here,’’ he said. “I think I have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on. Especially after last year, with a year under my belt, I’m getting way more comfortable this year.’’
Ordman said that even in high school, Uthoff was a player who gravitated to making big plays in big games.
“I think he’s in that mind-frame now,’’ Ordman said. “He wants to make plays and he feels like he has the support of his teammates and coaches to make plays.’’
As for tonight’s game between the Badgers and Hawkeyes, both of whom are 4-1 in the Big Ten, Uthoff admitted it will feel “strange’’ to play at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center for the second time as a visiting player.
“It is because I practiced on that floor for a year,’’ Uthoff said. “I was at every game. I redshirted, but I was at every game so it’s a little different.’’