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You Can Call Him Sapp

In a career that could've gone in two separate directions, Anthony Clemmons saved his best for his senior season.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If you've followed Iowa basketball at all in the last three years, you know his story by now.

There was a point early on in the 2013-14 season -- well before the guard admitted as such -- when the Iowa community thought Anthony Clemmons was going to leave Fran McCaffery's program. He was buried behind Mike Gesell and Devyn Marble a year after confidently starting games as a true freshman. His body language was suspect. When he did get minutes (11.3 compared to 16.8 the season before), you could tell there was just something off; something mentally preventing him from performing at the level he flashed as a freshman.

He was lost in the shuffle and was going through the day to day with as much excitement and enthusiasm as Mark Brendanawicz did for the City of Pawnee. No matter the situation Clemmons -- who looked like another perfectly plucked recruit by McCaffery -- couldn't break through. Couldn't recreate the level of success from the year before.

Then the slide came.

Iowa lost seven of their last eight games of the season (including their NCAA Tournament play-in-game against Tennessee), where Clemmons averaged less than five minutes per game. And because of it, the rumors started flying. Rumors that were surrounded by truth as Clemmons did question the idea of leaving Iowa City and becoming a star at a smaller program.

But after talking with his father, he realized that "quitting" was never in his nature. That trusting in his relationship with Fran McCaffery -- who recruited him for a reason, whether that was realized yet or not -- was the way to go. That he needed to look in the mirror and go back to the way he used to do things. To take his destiny into his own hands. That wherever he was going to transfer to, wouldn't have the same pedigree as being successful for a Big Ten program -- a goal he set for himself during his high school days with Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes.

Once he came to that conclusion with the help of his friends and family, Sapp put in the work necessary to get better and earn back McCaffery's trust. Soon, those mental road blocks that hampered him during that sophomore slump were eliminated. He rekindled with the Valentine family at Michigan State the following spring during their off season work outs -- having the blessing of both his coach and Tom Izzo -- and learned how to just play basketball again. He rediscovered his confidence. His hunger. And he dumped gasoline on top of that small fire burning inside of him.

And the coaching staff rewarded the junior, who to that point was having his best season in a Hawkeyes uniform, averaging 4.8 points, 1.9 assists, 1.9 rebounds, .7 steals and 19.9 minutes per game. He shot 38.8% inside the arch and 37.3% from three.

During that time he also became Iowa's best defensive guard.

Actually, let me rephrase that.

He became Iowa's most under appreciated guard who also became their best defensive specialist. And everyone on the team realized it. For his efforts during the 2014-15 season, Clemmons won Iowa's Most Improved Player award and looked primed for an even better senior season.

Quite the leap for a guy that was debating whether or not he should transfer.

Going into his senior year, Sapp's confidence was at an all time high. He was soaring. He was being rewarded for his hard work and dedication. The swagger was back. The chip on his shoulder was more prevalent than ever. And then he predicted this:

"I know what I'm going to do this year. It's going to be a big statement."

There's nothing better in a sports fans life than when a player you love calls his shot and delivers. It's why you'll see an 8-year old on the beach, pointing to the sky with their wiffle ball bat like they are miniature Babe Ruth. That stays with you.

"It's going to be a big statement."

Oh and it has, Sapp.

During Sunday's slog of a game against Minnesota, Sapp seemed to make a play every time the Hawkeyes needed one. It's something he's done all season long. It's as if he's discovered this propensity to make buckets when Iowa needs them most. He's learned how to pick his spots and attack. He's discovered HIS game within the confines of McCaffery's system. He's found such a good rhythm in his offensive game, that plays like this are common for him:

A season ago, Sapp probably forces that shot on the initial drive or turns it over trying to get the ball to Uthoff on the wing. Not this year. He's a cool customer now. Patient. Waiting to make the right play, not the first play.

Pressing is no longer an issue.

You know when people say the game has slowed down for certain athletes? I think that's exactly what's happened for Clemmons. His physical output has finally reached the optimal demand of the Big Ten.

Just look at the confidence on display during the set below:

Here, Clemmons breaks off the curl screen (which looks like a misdirect to free Uthoff for a three pointer), sees daylight, presses the gas and squeezes through three Gopher defenders for the three-point play, the old fashioned way. His assertiveness and creativity have been on full display throughout this magical run.

He's the only player on this roster that can score that way and it provides a uniqueness that opposing defenses need to adjust to. When defenses start bending to stop Jarrod Uthoff or Peter Jok at all costs, it leaves GIANT holes for Sapp to go to work and attack.

And for his efforts, Clemmons is averaging 9.2 points on 54.3% inside the arch and 31.4% from three. He's also dealing out 3.6 assists on 1.5 turnovers in 29.1 minutes per game. He's scored in the double digits in nine of Iowa's thirteen conference games (including four straight).

He's turned into that well-rounded player most Iowa fans hoped they'd get after his freshman year.

Defensively, what more is there to say? Since 2007-08, I haven't seen an Iowa guard deny passing lanes and recover to his man quite like Sapp:

In that game against Maryland, he matched up against Melo Trimble (2-7 on the night), Jake Layman (5-15) and Rasheed Sulaimon respectfully. Three different players and he shut them down (for the most part... Sulaimon went off that night, but did most of his damage when the Hawkeyes were scrambling). It's what makes him so valuable to this years team. Sure, Mike Gesell is a giant part of that picture too, but without Clemmons, this defense (29th in the nation according to KenPom) doesn't tick. Just look at what he did against his buddy Bryn Forbes (5 total points in two games). Or Yogi Ferrell (2-12 from the field last Thursday), or Kendrick Nunn (2-13), or Ron Baker (2-9 for seven points)... am I painting a clear picture here?

He allows the 50-50, zone and trap defenses to work as well as they have for McCaffery. I mean it when I say that he is Iowa's best wing defender. He just locks dudes up and makes their offensive night a living hell. You have to be willing to out work Sapp if you plan on scoring on him.

As you saw above, that hasn't been in the cards.

For as much as he looks dialed in offensively (especially as of late), he's ten times more locked in on the defensive side of the ball. And for his efforts, coaches should be voting for him on the All-Big Ten Defensive team when they get the opportunity. I don't care about blocks or steal. Just watch long defensive stretches where he prevents slashing guards from getting into the lane. Just watch long defensive stretches when he pushes shooters out so deep that they eliminate themselves from the scoring picture. Watch as he battles around screens and still keeps a hand in his mans face:

Appreciate the hustle, folks!

The road has had it's ups and downs for Clemmons. It's ebbed and flowed. But I think we can all agree, it's been worth the tribulations for all parties. Without Sapp, the Hawkeyes aren't where they are right now. Without the Hawkeyes, Sapp isn't where he is right now. It's a mutually beneficial relationship that has helped create this special, unexpected performance from the 2015-16 Iowa Hawkeyes.

Without Anthony Clemmons, Iowa is probably still a Top-25 team.

But with "Sapp", Iowa is the No. 4 team in the nation and primed for their first Big Ten regular season title since 1979.