“I was definitely a little bit surprised,” Iowa sophomore point guard Cully Payne said. “I know Matt (Gatens) talked to him the other night, and I talked to him the night before. I know he made a decision that was best for him and his family, and I guess what he thought the style of play was.”
“I was (surprised),” Iowa sophomore Eric May said. “(Uthoff) came and played in open gym. He’s on Cully’s team, so he’s around Iowa guys all the time. I was surprised, but it was his decision.”
Uthoff, a 6-foot-8 forward, committed to Wisconsin over five other schools at a news conference Monday night. Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Butler and Illinois also were on his final list.
Uthoff, who is playing in a national AAU tournament this week in Las Vegas, also competes in the Prime Time League on Payne’s team. Payne told The Gazette on Sunday he thought Uthoff athletic ability would translate well in new Coach Fran McCaffery’s scheme.
“We had the upper hand, I thought,” Payne said. “He played with me so we kind of got to know each other. Especially in college basketball the biggest thing is knowing your point guard. I thought that was a huge advantage. I loved passing him the ball, and he would have gotten it a ton next year coming in.”
Uthoff is the third high-profile basketball player to pick Wisconsin over Iowa in recent years. Former Linn-Mar prep Jason Bohannon, son of former Iowa quarterback Gordy Bohannon, just finished his career at Wisconsin. Ben Brust, who hails from Mundelein, Ill., originally signed a letter of intent to play at Iowa this fall but was released from his scholarship when Iowa fired Todd Lickliter. Brust later applied for a waiver, which was granted by Big Ten, to earn a basketball scholarship and play right away from Wisconsin. It was the first time the Big Ten granted such a waiver.
Tensions between the programs already were high, especially after Brust’s situation. Uthoff’s decision could stokes the emotions of a 101-year-old rivalry which Iowa leads 77-75.
“I think it definitely could, but I think it could make it exciting,” May said.
Gatens, an Iowa City native, said Iowa’s lack of recent success, which includes three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1932, makes losing local players that much more difficult to withstand.
“You just have to recruit them on in-state loyalty and hopefully getting a chance to turn things around,” said Gatens, a junior. “Hopefully you’ll want to be a part of that. If you don’t, then we don’t want you.”
May said wanting to turn around Iowa’s recent woes is about mental toughness. He understood Iowa was rebuilding when he committed to the school in 2008.
“It is a mindset,” May said. “You have to be tough about it. Coming in you know it’s not going to be an easy road, but it’s going to be exciting.
“At this point we’ve dealt with it. Now they’re the opponent.”
Payne joked that he’s now 0-for-2 in helping bring players to Iowa. He initially sold Brust on Iowa before Lickliter’s ouster. His recruiting efforts on Uthoff fell short.
“Coach has me calling all these people, ‘Hey, tell them it’s a good place,’” Payne said. “Maybe I’m saying the wrong thing.”
“If you want to be here, great. But if you don’t, we definitely want you to be somewhere else.”