DES MOINES, Iowa — After a month of struggles, Iowa finally got rolling with three straight wins to end non-conference play.
Those victories won't mean much if the Hawkeyes don't get off to a good start in the Big Ten — arguably the nation's toughest league yet again.
Iowa (8-5) opens league play Wednesday night at home against Purdue (10-3).
The Hawkeyes and Penn State are the only two Big Ten teams with more than three losses, and Iowa wasn't all that competitive in losses to Creighton, Clemson, Northern Iowa and Iowa State.
Now the Hawkeyes face 18 straight games in a league ranked No. 1 in RPI.
"It's important that we come into the game with the right mindset, follow the game plan and play well," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "We can't have mistake-(filled) stretches, long periods of missed shots, the inability to stop (Purdue) when we need a stop when we need a stop or two or three in a row. That's what you have to be able to do to win consistently."
There are at least two reasons why the Hawkeyes can hope this year will be better than last year, when they won just four Big Ten games and finished in 10th place.
Sophomore Devyn Marble is emerging as a potential impact player, and forward Melsahn Basabe has improved after an atrocious start.
Marble, a 6-foot-6 wing player, filled in at point guard with Bryce Cartwright sidelined and showed promise bringing the ball up the floor. Marble has been more aggressive on offense in his second season, providing a much-needed boost for the Hawkeyes.
Marble is averaging 17 points a game over his last four and has scored in double figures in eight of his last nine outings while sporting a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks eighth-best in the nation.
"He's getting the minutes. He's got the ball, and he's going to see a lot tougher defense," McCaffery said. "But he's been through it. He went through it last year, so he'll be ready for it."
Basabe packed on about 25 pounds after a promising freshman season, determined to be the power forward McCaffery envisioned.
But those extra pounds have left him sluggish. Basabe went through one stretch earlier this season where he scored exactly two points in four straight games, and his rebounding was lacking as well.
McCaffery implored Basabe to focus on defense and the boards, reasoning his offense eventually would come around if he were active in other areas.
Since early December, Basabe has improved. He had his best game of the year in a win over Boise State last week, with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
Senior Matt Gatens has been steady, averaging 14 points while shooting nearly 90 percent from the free throw line.
But if the Hawkeyes are going to surprise those expecting another poor finish in the Big Ten, they'll need more than the trio of Marble, Basabe and Gatens.
Cartwright's been hampered by injuries and has yet to match the form he displayed in 2010-11, when he led the Big Ten in assists. Starters Eric May and Zach McCabe have been decent, combining for roughly 15 points and 7.5 rebounds a night, but it's tough to imagine either blossoming into a serious threat over the next two months.
Freshmen Aaron White and Josh Oglesby showed promise in non-conference play, though they've been predictably inconsistent. White can be an inside scoring presence and was named the Big Ten's freshman of the week for the second time on Monday. Oglesby has led the team in scoring three times despite coming off the bench.
"They all have to be right in the middle of everything. I expect a lot out of each and every one of them. They're going to be on the floor; they're going to have opportunities to shoot; they're going to have opportunities to make plays. What they have to be are consistent winning players," McCaffery said. They "can't be mistake makers. Got to defend, make shots when the opportunities present themselves."
After struggling to beat teams it was supposed to defeat, the Hawkeyes have cobbled together a winning streak and the confidence that comes with success.
That could all change if they can't continue to show improvement.
"It's one tough game after another, and all we're trying to do is prepare for the next opponent and play well," McCaffery said. "And then if we play well, then try to continue to get better."