IOWA CITY — Jarrod Uthoff saw this day coming, and so did the Iowa Hawkeyes.
When the one-time Wisconsin basketball player bolted for Big Ten rival Iowa in 2012, Uthoff understood he’d return to the Kohl Center. He knew the Grateful Red would howl and jeer him from warm-ups to postgame handshakes. Perhaps to avoid any potential fodder for his return, officials at No. 22 Iowa (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten) declined to make Uthoff available to media until after Sunday’s game.
It’s doubtful the 6-foot-9 sophomore from Cedar Rapids would say anything inflammatory about the No. 4 Badgers (14-0, 1-0) anyway. For more than a year he’s tried to pre-empt all questions about Wisconsin with cliches. But the game does matter to Uthoff and to the thousands of fans who will mock him, and Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery is aware of it.
McCaffery views predictable taunts toward Uthoff in a similar vein as how Iowa fans treat Wisconsin senior Ben Brust — a former Iowa recruit — at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. What McCaffery wants from Uthoff is to simply concentrate on his game, just as Brust has done in Iowa City.
“In Jarrod’s situation, (the fans) don’t impact the game,” McCaffery said. “They don’t impact how he’s going to perform. They can yell at him. But they can’t come out and defend him. I’m not going to really pay much attention to it. Our fans have yelled at Ben; it hasn’t affected him.
“I’m more concerned about … how do we handle their runs and how their crowd gets involved in the game more than some people yelling at Jarrod Uthoff.”
Upon taking the Iowa job in March 2010, McCaffery zeroed in on Uthoff as a prime recruit. But Uthoff spurned the new coach and committed to Wisconsin at Eastern Iowa Airport that summer. As a senior at Cedar Rapids Jefferson in 2011, Uthoff earned the state’s coveted Mr. Basketball Award after averaging 26.2 points a game.
Early in Uthoff’s freshman season, Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan praised Uthoff saying, “He’s grasped our concepts as fast as anybody that we’ve had.” But Uthoff opted to red-shirt. By late in his freshman season he was unhappy and elected to transfer.
Uthoff didn’t inform Ryan directly, and the situation went viral nationally. Uthoff initially was restricted from contacting schools in the Big Ten, Marquette and Iowa State. Ryan then included all Atlantic Coast Conference schools and Florida.
Uthoff appealed the restrictions but his handwritten letter was placed in the wrong mailbox, further escalating the impasse. Eventually the letter was found and Uthoff met with Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, who lifted restrictions to all non-Big Ten schools.
“I was embarrassed in some aspects, that it had to get that big,” Uthoff told The Gazette last spring. “I realized that (Wisconsin) wasn’t going to work for me. I wanted to go someplace else. I really didn’t want to make it that big a deal; I just wanted to leave and go to the next school and be happy. I really didn’t want it to get that big. I didn’t think there was any need to get it that big.”
Uthoff took visits but chose Iowa without talking to the coaching staff. He was disallowed from contacting Iowa athletics officials until stepping on campus the first day of the fall semester. He was unable to receive a scholarship his first year at Iowa.
Uthoff sat out last season as a transfer. His restrictions didn’t allow him to travel with the team. He didn’t attend last year’s double-overtime game in Madison, in which the Badgers prevailed 74-70.
This year is much different. Uthoff is a key contributor for the Hawkeyes. He ranks first in rebounding (6.5 per game) and third in scoring (10.9) despite coming off the bench. He’s a vital cog for Iowa, and he’s got the potential to damage Wisconsin in multiple ways. Uthoff’s experience helps him understand the complexities of Ryan’s system. That translates into Iowa’s scouting report as much as it does with Uthoff on the court.
“Oh my, for sure, because playing against it is one thing but being in it and understanding the system itself is another,” Uthoff told The Gazette on Nov. 6. “It’s going to be very beneficial.”
Among Big Ten players, Uthoff ranks fourth in field-goal percentage, sixth in free-throw percentage, ninth in blocks and 10th in rebounding. But he also has plenty of room for improvement. At times he passes up open shots and is unselfish to a fault. McCaffery describes Uthoff as “efficient.”
“He doesn’t necessarily think of the game in terms of ‘go get mine,’” McCaffery said. “There’s got to be a balance there where he recognizes that we want and our team needs him at times to think a little more that way. You look at his shooting percentages and that’s indicative of who he is. His numbers are unbelievable because he feels that (he’s) taking nothing but good shots. Sometimes we would like for him to play the game with a little more reckless abandon. I think as the season goes on, you’ll see that.”
Sunday, it’s about Uthoff competing in a difficult environment where the insults are personal. Still, he’ll surrender one night of taunts for a full season of happiness in Iowa City.
“I’m very fortunate I had the opportunity to come here, that it all worked out,” Uthoff said Nov. 6. “It’s really unreal how it all worked out. I’m very fortunate, and I couldn’t be happier to be here.”