IOWA CITY — Iowa freshman Mike Gesell has a decision to make.
He can fight through an agonizing stress reaction in his right foot and help his team inch toward an NCAA tournament bid. Or, if the physical pain is too great, Gesell will have to suffer through the sting of regret, especially if Iowa falls short.
His right foot aches with every movement, but it’s not fractured. He’s cleared to play in Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament opener against Northwestern, but at what value?
That’s his choice, and it’s not easy.
“It still hurts me a little bit,” Gesell said. “We’re just trying to push the process along a little bit faster. So hopefully I can play.”
Gesell started Iowa’s first 27 games, including 14 at point guard. Days before the team traveled to Nebraska, he felt a sharp pain in his right foot, calling it “like a stabbing feeling.” He played 30 minutes that game and scored six points. Gesell even dinged his left ankle that day. But it was his right foot that took him down.
“After the game it started hurting really bad and what happened just came on real quick,” Gesell said. “Nothing ever like it. I was talking to Brad (Floy) our trainer. He said they’re a little bit common, but I’ve never experienced anything like it.
“A real sharp pain in that one spot. Just different movements was what set it off.”
Gesell sat out for four games. He wore a walking boot everywhere until late last week and stayed in shape by riding bikes and running on an underwater treadmill. He still worked on his ball skills but didn’t practice with the team until Monday.
While still wears his boot to keep pressure on his foot, there’s no further chance of him breaking it, Gesell said.
“We talked to the doctor and he said that it’s a pretty stable bone and not one that you’d usually get a stress fracture in,” Gesell said. “So he’s fine with me playing on it as long as it didn’t hurt too bad.”
Gesell averaged 9.0 points a game this year and had double-digit point totals against Indiana, Wisconsin twice, Minnesota twice and Iowa State and five others. HE scored a career-best 23 points against Northern Iowa to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Gesell showed little fear on the road, averaging more points away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena (10.5) than at home (7.7). He finished with 79 assists and only 53 turnovers. He struggled from the field previously against Northwestern, shooting a combined 2-of-12 for five points in two Iowa wins against the Wildcats.
To Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, there’s no question Gesell would help the Hawkeyes this week in whatever role the freshman could muster.
“Well, it helps in a lot of ways,” McCaffery said. “It gives you another point guard, another ballhandler. It gives you another shot maker. It gives you another guy who’s got experience, and it just makes us that much deeper, that much better.”
Iowa sophomore Aaron White said the team needs Gesell, especially on offense.
“The way he can shoot and score the ball is his biggest asset to our team,” White said. “When we’re struggling, he’s a good 3-point shooter, good pullups. Always plays hard, good defender.”
McCaffery insisted Gesell’s conditioning is fine, although it’s uncertain whether Gesell can be effective in long stretches. McCaffery said it’s “up in the air” if Gesell starts Thursday and it depends on practices Tuesday and Wednesday. But McCaffery added, “it’s a good possibility, though.”
Gesell doesn’t want to rush into action but he wants to play, with or without an injured foot.
“I’m a competitor, and I really want to play in it, getting to play in the United Center,” Gesell said. “I just want what’s best for our team, and I want to help this team out in any way I can.”