- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa coach Fran McCaffery put together the most ambitious non-conference schedule of his tenure this season.

It might have all been for naught if the Hawkeyes can’t beat Northern Iowa in Des Moines on Saturday.

Iowa (8-3) has already faced No. 9 Texas and Syracuse in New York City, No. 24 North Carolina in Chapel Hill and 13th-ranked Iowa State at home. The Hawkeyes have beaten only the Tar Heels out of that group and their current RPI of 102 is well outside of NCAA tournament consideration.

The rival Panthers, who are 9-1 with an RPI of 25, represent a huge opportunity for Iowa to rebuild its confidence and its resume ahead of the Big Ten season.

It won’t be easy, though. Northern Iowa has emerged as one of the nation’s top mid-majors and was ranked in the Top 25 as recently as last week.

“They have pieces that fit, so they have quickness in the back court, they have shooters on the perimeter. They have big guys that can shoot the ball,” McCaffery said.

No. 13 Iowa State hosts Drake in the opener of an in-state doubleheader at Wells Fargo Arena. After that, Iowa will try to knock off the Panthers.

For the most part, Iowa has played exceptional defense this season. The Hawkeyes aren’t bad on offense either, averaging a respectable 72.3 points per game.

But what’s really hurt the Hawkeyes is their perimeter shooting.

Forward Jarrod Uthoff is shooting just 40.9 percent from the floor and 56 percent from the free throw line. Starting guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons are both under 35 percent from the floor. Senior guard Josh Oglesby was supposed to give Iowa a shooter off the bench. But he’s shooting just 22.6 percent, and in his last three games he’s 2 of 14 from the floor.

One of the ways Iowa could address its inability to consistently knock down jumpers is to give more playing time to emerging sophomore guard Peter Jok.

Jok has hit 7 of his last 15 3s and is the Iowa’s second-leading scorer over the past two weeks despite coming off the bench. Jok played more than Oglesby in last week’s 90-75 blowout loss to Iowa State and could very well be on the verge of reaching his potential as a scorer.

“I think he’s mixing it up. You don’t ever want to be categorized as a shooter or a driver,” McCaffery said. “If you’re one dimensional, you’re really easy to guard. And you’re seeing a guy, I think, that’s a little more versatile than he was last year.”

Even though the Panthers have gotten off to a better start than the Hawkeyes, Saturday’s game is huge for them as well.

Iowa is the last power five team left on Northern Iowa’s schedule, and Wichita State is the only other Valley school ranked in the top 50 for RPI. A win on a neutral floor over the Hawkeyes would help keep Northern Iowa’s chances for an at-large bid strong, even as its resume takes a seemingly inevitable hit in Valley play.

But this is also a rivalry that’s become more and more heated over the past decade. The teams have split the last 12 meetings, a statistic reflective of Northern Iowa’s growth over the past decade.

“I said it’s the biggest game of our non-conference season. In a lot of ways, it’s the biggest game of our entire season from the standpoint of what it all means. I love this game. I love being a part of it,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.

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Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP

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