Iowa handles Michigan and is staking its claim as the Big Ten’s best

John Beilein, left, couldn’t get his team over the hump on Sunday vs. Fran McCaffery’s guys. (USATSI)

Here’s something that should raise your eyebrows: Iowa is riding a seven-game winning streak, and it’s the longest such streak this deep into a season for this program in — here we go — 19 years.

Iowa got to this point with its 11-point home win over Michigan on Sunday. The Hawkeyes had a fight early from the Wolverines, but they got stronger as the game got older.

The last time Iowa started 5-0 in Big Ten play was 1996-97, and so the Hawkeyes have returned to the top of the conference standings just as they are staking claim to be the Big Ten’s best team. You can make an easy case right now because Iowa has already swept Michigan State, its only fellow unbeaten in the league is Indiana, and with an overall strength of schedule coming in at No. 8 on KenPom.com? The Hawkeyes are poised to remain prominent nationally as their season crests to another level here.

It’s been a long time since Iowa fans truly could believe their team was this good, even if it was just two seasons ago when the Hawkeyes had an identical record. That team started 15-3 but wound up with a 20-13 record and didn’t win an NCAA Tournament game. With a top-10 offense and a top-15 defense, there are no indications a repeat of that buckling will repeat itself.

This victory was Iowa’s 11th straight in the regular season against the Big Ten. It hasn’t won that many games in a row against conference foes in 46 years. More accolades and talking points: It’s been 51 years since any college basketball team has beaten the same opponent twice in one season by double digits when that opponent was ranked in the top five in both matchups.

At 14-3, Fran McCaffery’s club should find itself jump up a number of spots come Monday’s poll releases. Iowa was ranked 16th this week, but at this point this it’s a top-10 team nationally and a crew that has a road game against Rutgers next, then Purdue comes to town on Sunday, Jan. 24. Win both of those, and a road game against Maryland awaits on Jan. 28. Could be the biggest game in the conference to date this season, really.

Iowa kept its defense different throughout its 82-71 victory against better-than-most-think Michigan. U of M still is without its by-far best player, Caris LeVert. Iowa had only four turnovers, which is superbly good, of course. Jarrod Uthoff, who is right there at the top of the board for Big Ten player of the year, scored a game-high 23 points. Peter Jok added 16 points.

It was a week that saw 13 ranked teams lose over the course of the past five days, and yet Iowa looked as strong as any team in the country. And remember, the MSU win on Thursday was a road game with Denzel Valentine back in the lineup for Tom Izzo’s team.

Michigan is still looking like it can be an NCAA Tournament team, especially when LeVert (who averages 17.6 points) gets back. To be clear on the LeVert thing — there is no clarity. All that’s been revealed is he has a left leg injury and that his timetable is still unknown. Remember, Michigan beat Maryland 70-67 earlier this week. We’ll hear from Michigan again, for sure — it’s just nowhere near Iowa’s class this season.

Even if Iowa’s not truly the best in the Big Ten — but still, it could be! — it’s at worst top-three, and the league is pretty good again. For now, this is so welcomed for that fan base.

And by the way, if you’re curious about that ’96-97 Hawkeyes team, it finished as a No. 8 seed with a record of 22-10 and lost in the second round to No. 1 Kentucky. It would be a huge surprise if this team winds up with that kind of ending.

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