Tomorrow's game against Ohio State game is suddenly a hot ticket in Iowa City thanks to the team's surprising road victories over Wisconsin and Minnesota. But can the Hawks actually pull the upset over the #7-ranked Buckeyes? It will be, admittedly, a challenge, as Ohio State features at least one sure-fire NBA lottery pick in F-C Jared Sullinger, and several other possible future NBA players in William Buford, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft. But looking at the statistics, this Ohio State team is not without weaknesses, and there are a few things the Hawkeyes could do to improve their chances:
1) Don't freak about about the three-point line
Iowa has done a poor job defending the three all year, and it would be understandable if they looked at some of the gaudy shooting performances of Buford and Thomas and made stopping their long-range game a priority. But as a team, Ohio State is actually fairly weak from deep: 242nd in the country at 32.2%.* For every game where Buford has gone 5-7 or 4-4 from three (e.g. Valparaiso, Northwestern), there is another where he has gone 1-6 or 0-5 (e.g. Nebraska, Lamar). Ohio State excels in effective field goal percentage (53.6%, 30th in the country), though, and that is largely due to their impressive shooting from two-point range (55.4%, 8th in the country). Sullinger is a huge part of that success inside, obviously, and ranks 56th in two-point percentage at 62%, but Thomas is also very good on the interior with a two-point field goal percentage even higher than Sullinger (63.2%, 39th in the country). Iowa shouldn't leave the Buckeyes open from three, of course, but if they have to choose between giving up a 55.4% two-point shot worth on average 1.11 points and a 32.2% three-point shot worth .97 points, the choice is clear. The Buckeyes' strength is inside, so the Hawks might do well by going to the same zone that gave Minnesota so many difficulties. Believe it or not, Ohio State is actually a worse three-point shooting team in aggregate than Minnesota (Minnesota has made 33.8% of their threes).
* All stats taken from www.teamrankings.com.
2) Use their fouls wisely
Ohio State is, it turns out, not a great free-throw shooting team, just 186th in the country at 68.4%. If the Hawks first strategy breaks down and the Buckeyes do get the ball with good position inside, it probably makes more sense to foul hard (but cleanly, of course), rather than give up the easy bucket. In particular, Iowa should focus on making the following players beat them from the charity stripe: Evan Ravenel (64.7% on free throws), Craft (67.9%), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (47.1%), Thomas (73.2%) and Sullinger (77.0%). Sullinger actually shoots a decent percentage, but when you compare that to his percentage from the field, it's a matter of picking your poison. Indiana did a good job of this in their upset of the Buckeyes, sending Sullinger to the line 13 times. He made nine of those free throws, but attempted only five field goals and finished with a fairly inefficient 15 points. The one player the Hawks must not foul is Buford, who is deadly at 87.5%.
3) Hit the offensive glass like maniacs
One of the Buckeyes' strengths is very good defensive rebounding (2nd in the country at 79.9% defensive rebounding percentage). If the Hawks are to have any chance of winning, they will need every extra point they can muster, and that means creating extra possessions off of missed shots. Ohio State is also a decent (though not elite) offensive rebounding team (66th in the country in offensive rebounding rate), so Iowa will need to do their best to keep Sullinger off of the boards on that end as well. Brommer could be crucial to Iowa's efforts. He's the only Hawk within 30 pounds of Sullinger's listed weight (although Sullinger is looking svelter this year), and once Brommer goes out, it will be difficult to stop Sullinger from dominating the boards or from scoring inside. Last year, Jarryd Cole got the job, but he's gone, so it's up to Brommer, and failing that, probably Zach McCabe. Those two will need to ignore point #2 about fouling, and leave that to players who can afford to sit for a few minutes.
4) Put Marble on Craft
You might think that Devyn Marble would be a perfect match for Buford or Thomas given their roughly equal height, but my impression has been that Marble is much more effective on quick point guards than strong wing players. Marble is still fairly slight and can be backed down in the post, which would make Thomas and Buford bad match-ups, but his combination of length and speed on the perimeter gives him the ability to stay in front of most point guards while still challenging their outside shot (see his awesome defense of Jordan Taylor for an example). Furthermore, Craft has shown signs of turnover problems in big games, making six of them against Indiana, three against Kansas, four against Duke, and three against Florida, so if anyone on Ohio State is going to give the ball up, it will be him -- Ohio State as a team is very careful with the ball, ranking 26th in fewest turnovers per possession. As the Wisconsin game showed, however, if you harass the other team's point guard, it really mucks up the works for the entire offense.
5) Clarify Basabe's role
Melsahn Basabe had a breakout game in Iowa's near-upset of Ohio State last fall: 22 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks. And so you might think the Hawks would do well to feed the ball to Basabe Saturday. But it's important to remember just how he got those gaudy stats. A big part of it was hitting the glass and grabbing eight (!) offensive boards and then getting fouled (he shot 11 free throws in the game). Another part of it was scoring inside -- he got eight of his points on dunks or layups. Lastly, it's important to remember how Basabe got those six blocks. It was not in a primary defensive role against Sullinger -- Jarryd Cole and Brommer got that job -- but helping off his man on Sullinger (he got four blocks on just Sullinger). Basabe does least well, both on offense and defense, when he is locked in a one-on-one match-up. The result on offense is too often a jump-shot or an awkward post move, and on defense, his lack of size and sometimes poor positioning doom him in one-on-one match-ups. He is most productive when he operates as a force of chaos off of the ball, using his quickness, long arms and leaping ability to fly in and grab rebounds or block shots. If he can just hover around Sullinger's periphery and make him think about getting his shot blocked (like he did last year), he will be invaluable to the Hawks.
6) Play decisively -- don't wait to get fouled
Thad Matta's team is pretty disciplined in terms of fouling, ranking 22nd in the country in fouls per possession, which is a problem for the Hawks, because they've lived at the foul line recently. It will be a home game, so they shouldn't abandon that aspect of their game completely, but Ohio State appears, at least statistically, to be a team that doesn't bite on pump fakes very much. With long, athletic defenders like Thomas, Buford and Sullinger, you can see why. Craft is also a very good perimeter defender, and is quick enough to avoid the need to foul. If the Hawks have an open shot initially against the Buckeyes, they would be well-advised to just take it, knowing that the Buckeyes are the type of team that tries to avoid overreacting on defense.
7) Run, run, run
Ohio State will clearly have the best three players in this game, and arguably the best four, but they are top-heavy: their top four players account for 57.8% of the team's total minutes (Sullinger, Buford, Thomas and Craft). If Iowa is able to rotate players freely and run whenever possible, those four could start to feel the effects of fatigue as the game goes on. It will be crucial for Aaron White, Josh Oglesby, and Devon Archie to play reserve minutes,and for Matt Gatens to get at least a few minutes of rest. It seems likely that Gatens and May will be assigned to Buford and Thomas, so those two will need to be fresh.
8) Be willing to take threes
Iowa has had some serious problems with the three this year, but for an upset, we'll need unusual things to happen, which means we'll need some threes. Gatens, Oglesby, May, McCabe and White all need to be fearless about taking those shots if they're open. Even if Iowa shoots just 30% on threes, that will still probably be a better bet than waiting for the half-court offense to generate easy scoring looks against the #2 defense in the country (in terms of points per possession). And if a few of those shots go in, it should open up the entire offense as Thomas, Buford and Sullinger are forced to roam further from the paint.
It sounds like Carver will be sold out or nearly so, which is a pretty novel thing for the Hawks, so they could get a home court advantage in this game. It should be loud, and hopefully raucous. Follow the slogan and get mad, everyone (don't punch anyone or anything like that, though).*
* I don't know if it's a little late to start something like this, but I thought one idea would be to organize some sort of Twitter-based Buckeye-taunting campaign. We could use the hashtag #hawkchants or #franchants and put the collective smart-aleck-ness of the BHGP readership to use. Thoughts? Suggestions? The best taunts I can think of are "LOCKOUT'S OVER" and "ANTHONY DAVIS" to remind Sullinger that he probably sacrificed the #1 spot in the draft to return to Columbus. That or "APPLE-CHEEKED YOUNGSTER" for Aaron Craft.
In conclusion, it will take the confluence of several favorable events for Iowa to beat Ohio State, but this is not an unbeatable opponent. If Iowa can do the little things to force Ohio State away from its strengths inside, if Andrew Brommer can play 25 minutes without fouling out, if Devyn Marble can shut down Aaron Craft, and if the Hawks can make a few more threes than they normally do, the possibility for the upset is there. Go Hawks!