When CBSSports.com (who, full disclosure, used to employ me) released its preseason list of the top 100 college basketball players, we couldn't help but notice a certain Jarrod Uthoff was missing from the ranks. Whether he had been among those ranks last season was debatable at best—Uthoff's production as the second-best player on a 7-seed team was decent, and he merited a split between the All-Big Ten third team and honorable mention, depending on if you ask the coaches or media—but the talent to be a star was there, and the opportunity was coming.
Then ESPN.com left Uthoff out as well. And then it was no longer a matter of one single oversight; the rest of basketball really didn't see this coming.
Suffice it to say, Jarrod Uthoff is on the college basketball world's radar now. He has led Iowa to two straight mammoth wins to start Big Ten play, first a blowout over (former) No. 1 Michigan State then a dramatic second-half comeback at (former) No. 14 Purdue. He averaged 17.5 points, four rebounds and 5.5 blocks in the two games, right in line with his season averages, and Iowa now sits at No. 19 in its first appearance in the AP Poll of the season.
Jarrod Uthoff averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and shooting 50 percent from field, 45 from 3 and 80 from the line. AA candidate.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 3, 2016
Nothing about Uthoff's surge as the leader of the Iowa attack is particularly surprising; rumors had begun that he was already Iowa's second-best player during his transfer season, his jumper has always been smooth and accurate, and he's always been tall enough to give average college wings serious problems on both ends of the floor. He's entering a new level on that front, though.
He's finally shooting as well and as often as we've wanted
Uthoff's shooting efficiency is back in force. After his percentages dipped slightly as a junior, Uthoff's shooting percentages are all at or near the highest they've been in his career, all while his shooting frequency is up substantially since last year:
It's obviously worth noting that Iowa's only two games into the Big Ten season, but a look at Uthoff's efficiency against the tougher competition of the season ($) thus far shows that it's not like he's only loading up against the patsies*:
*Tier A is Pomeroy's Top 50 and Tier B includes the Top 100, adjusted for home court; the only team in Tier B is Florida State, who's No. 45 but had to come to CHA. In other words, the A+B group contains no pushovers.
You'll notice that Uthoff's offensive rating dips in B1G play, but that's an outsized effect of a sample size of two games, one being his turnover-riddled game against Michigan State; the effect disappears when the sample expands to other high-level competition (and his offensive rating was much higher against the Big Ten last season than on the whole). That Tier A non-conference competition all came away from home, and it's right in line with what Uthoff has done all year, even as he's been asked to play more minutes against actually good teams.
As the numbers show, he's no longer meticulously picking his spots. He's taking ~30% of Iowa's shots this season, up from ~25% last season (and a now-paltry 19% as a sophomore), even as his free throw rate is way, way up. Against Purdue, Uthoff worked his way to the line on post-ups, cannily drawing contact on jumpers and then being the team's go-to presence at the line in crunch time. With all due respect to Mike Gesell, Uthoff is the guy who you want holding the ball at the end of games.
And one game after matching his career high in points before halftime against Western Illinois, Uthoff did this:
Obviously the second half was not quite as fun for him or Iowa fans, but the great thing is it's not part of this video so we can just assume the game ended here and Iowa is now #1. Anyway, you see both Uthoff and the team recognizing that he's just demolishing everyone ISU throws at him, so the obvious course of action is to continue the demolition, to the tune of 30 points in one half. It's not sustainable and it doesn't get sustained, but if you've got any issues with it please direct us to the other times an Iowa player has dropped 30+ at Hilton and we'll get right on the task of delivering the praise to where it's more richly deserved.
His defense is reaching elite levels
Uthoff has more than doubled his blocks, and now ranks third nationally in blocks at 3.2* per game, but he's "only" 17th in block percentage** at 11.68%, per Ken Pomeroy ($). That's still elite, but we see that part of his ability to accumulate so many blocks is his ability to stay on the court for more minutes than most shot blockers, and he does that with an amazing ability to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, Uthoff commits only 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and that is one hell of an accomplishment. Not only is it the lowest of anybody in Pomeroy's top 100 in block percentage, nobody else is even below 3.0 (and only a handful are even below 3.5).
*Goodman's tweet above is slightly wrong, for some reason; Uthoff's at 45 blocks in 14 games, or 3.214 per.
**The percentage of opposing teams' shots that he blocks while he's on the court, if that wasn't self-evident.
What's also notable about Uthoff's shot defense is that so many of his blocks come on perimeter and mid-range jump shots. It's not like he's there to protect the rim or shove guys off the post. And that's a big reason why his block totals remain high, even as opponents are acutely aware of the threat he poses: you can't just scheme the ball away from where Uthoff is stationed, because he plays defense all over the half-court area.
NBA scouts have balked at Uthoff because his wingspan is *only* 6'10.5" (most NBA small forwards are a little over 7'0" there), but I suspect some of that might be a function of his relatively thin frame—i.e. less distance between the shoulder joints in addition to whatever arm length differential there is. We won't know until he's going through draft measurements, but given Uthoff's ability to contest shots at such an elite level and get his own shot off without any trouble, his standing vertical reach should be more in line with what you'd expect from a 6'9" wing than his side-to-side span. Or then again, he might be Riley Reiff's long-lost cousin.
At any rate, here's a list of Iowa players who have blocked more than 80 shots in a season (p. 85):
Acie Earl ('91-'93: 106, 121, 88)
Erek Hansen ('04-'05: 83, 89)
That's it; that's the entire list. Those are Iowa's two most imposing defensive presences at the rim, and Uthoff is barreling toward numbers that would stand right alongside them. If Iowa plays 35 games and Uthoff keeps his pace up, he'll finish with 112, which would be a flirtation with the best shot-blocking season anyone in an Iowa uniform has had since blocked shots were first recorded in 1980 (and an official NCAA stat in 1985).
Together, his offense and defense make him a totally unique player in recorded college basketball history
So if you're trying to think of an Iowa player with this kind of size and skill set, it's okay if you can't, because there isn't one. He's kind of Adam Haluska, kind of Chris Street, and kind of Greg Stokes while being not really any of them. Which is fine! We don't need to contextualize everything as it happens in front of us in historical corollaries.
But if you're curious just how often college basketball sees a player doing the things that Uthoff does, well, there are tools to find them. So let's look for players who, in a season, have averaged three blocks and two made threes per game, like Uthoff does:
He appears to be alone. Well, certainly someone's close. Let's knock that down to 2.5 blocks and two threes per game.
Still... still alone. Okay, how's this: 2.5 blocks, 1.5 threes per game?
Once again, he's the only one. Enough screwing around, let's get some company. Only two blocks and two threes per game, who you got?
Ah, now we finally have a peer: Shane Battier, who's only one of the greatest college basketball players of the past 20 years. Now we're not suggesting Uthoff is better than Battier, a two-time All-American who led Duke to a national championship in 2001 while sweeping the various Player of the Year awards—our takes are not that hot—but we do see what a special and rare skill set Uthoff possesses, and is using to maximum benefit.
He's doing all this alongside the best supporting cast of the McCaffery Era
It's obviously worth noting that Uthoff isn't the only guy responsible for Iowa's ascent into the Top 25 and its big wins. From last season's squad, Uthoff has lost Aaron White to the NBA Draft and Gabriel Olaseni to Euroleague, so it seems bold to say Iowa's supporting cast is better than last year. But Uthoff is undeniably getting a lot of help, especially for the things McCaffrey shouldn't ask him to do, and you could make an easy case that each of the other four starters are all also playing at the highest level of their careers. That's a big deal, and something Iowa needs to sustain as the Big Ten season roars into gear.
And yet at the same time, for as much as you wouldn't ask Uthoff to protect the rim, bring the ball up the court or run point defense, you certainly wouldn't ask the guys in those roles to do what Uthoff does—not in a primary role for most of the game, anyway.
Jarrod Uthoff is doing great things, and he's surrounded by role players who are also thriving. It's a recipe for success, and Iowa's surging as a result. It's fun to watch, and we hope you're able to enjoy and appreciate it.