IOWA CITY, Iowa — Dean Oliver was talking about the thousands of hours he’s spent inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena when he hesitated for a split-second, unsure if he should share a secret.

Oliver, an assistant coach with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program who played at Iowa from 1997-2001, returns to his alma mater tonight when the Badgers (10-10, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) take on the host Hawkeyes (10-11, 1-7).

“I can probably say this now, but I had a key,” Oliver said. “The janitor got tired of opening it for me, so he gave me the key.”

When Oliver completed his career with the Hawkeyes — he was a third-team All-Big Ten selection each of his final three seasons — he passed along that key to teammate Jeff Horner. For all Oliver knows, the key continued to change hands and now might be in the possession of a current Iowa player.

Oliver was a homegrown star who committed to Iowa early in his high school career and helped lead Mason City to a pair of state titles. He arrived in Iowa City as a gym rat, and that reputation only grew during his time as a four-year starter that included two years each under Dr. Tom Davis and Steve Alford.

“He was always in there, always getting up shots,” said Ryan Luehrsmann, who played with Oliver at Iowa. “After classes and after study table. It’s just how driven and committed he was. I’m sure he’s instilling a lot of those same values and work ethic in his kids at Wisconsin.”

Late night/early morning sessions in the gym weren’t out of the question for Oliver. Once, after a rough performance from the free throw line during an exhibition game, he had difficulty sleeping and decided it was time to put in some work.

He walked into an empty gym at 4 a.m. and began shooting free throws. Sam Alford, the father of the Iowa coach and an assistant with the Hawkeyes, eventually showed up and quietly rebounded for Oliver, who made 106 in a row at one point.

There was little doubt among the people around Oliver at Iowa that eventually he’d end up in the coaching profession.

After completing a nine-year professional career — Oliver spent two seasons in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors and also played overseas in Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, the Netherlands and France — he spent time on staffs at North Dakota and Illinois State before replacing Lamont Paris at UW.

“At Iowa, under Tom Davis, when you played the point guard position you triggered everything,” Luehrsmann said. “You made a lot of the calls on offense and on defense. T.D. put a lot into the point guard being knowledgeable and being cerebral and being a leader, and Dean was a natural at it.

“He was always asking questions when we were going through scouts and film session and you just kind of knew it was in his blood.”

Luehrsmann, the varsity boys basketball coach at Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, believes Oliver will run a college program someday.

But first things first. Oliver is trying to help guide a young backcourt at UW, which ended a three-game losing streak with a 75-50 victory over Illinois on Friday.

Iowa, like UW, has struggled to meet expectations this season. The Hawkeyes have trailed by at least 17 points in each of their past seven Big Ten games, losing six times in that stretch.

Four Hawkeyes average double figures in scoring, a group led by sophomore forward Tyler Cook (14.5) and sophomore point guard Jordan Bohannon (13.3). But Iowa has struggled mightily on defense and are allowing conference opponents to shoot 50.0 percent overall from the field and 44.9 percent from 3-point range.

It should be no shock that when UW coach Greg Gard handed out scouting report assignments to his staff, Iowa ended up in Oliver’s hands.

“I think they probably knew that I wanted it,” he said.

Still, Oliver said he’s treating this like any other game. He returned to Carver-Hawkeye Arena when he was on the Illinois State staff for a private scrimmage; now, there’ll be fans in the stands at a place he once called home.

“It’s been such a long time,” Oliver said. “I doubt if I’ll get any boos or anything. It’s just good to go back and see some familiar faces. It’s always nice to see the people who were supporting you when you were playing. I had nothing but good things happen to me when I was there, so it’s a great experience to get the chance to come back.”

When Oliver was first hired at UW, he received some friendly banter from ex-teammates in the form of text messages. After congratulating Oliver for landing a Big Ten job, some of his buddies playfully wondered why he’d join one of the Hawkeyes’ main rivals.

Oliver was expecting more of the same in the hours leading up to his homecoming.

“We’ll have fun with him, ‘You looked a lot better in black and gold than red and white,’ ” Luehrsmann said. “But after 40 minutes is aside, the friendship and the relationships are more important. We want the best for Dean and for Wisconsin, except for when they play the Hawks.”