Iowa (8-1) vs. Drake (6-1)
Date: December 7, 2013
Time: 7:30 p.m. CT
Location: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Television: Mediacom 22 & Big Ten Digital Network
Line: Iowa -10
The Hawkeyes take on Drake in the second-annual Big Four Classic Saturday. The good news: This should be an interesting game. The bad news: Pretty much nobody can watch it. Tipoff is set for 7:30 at Wells Fargo Arena.
Drake isn't supposed to be this good. Two years ago, the Bulldogs lost their best player, Rayvonte Rice, to a transfer (Rice is now scoring 18 points a game for Illinois). Last year, after a 15-17 season, Drake fired its head coach and replaced him with longtime Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti. The new coach inherited a team that lost three starters to graduation and struggled to defend anyone in the previous season. This is not a recipe for success.
Drake started the season with a two-point win over lowly Illinois-Chicago and a blowout of Division III Iowa Wesleyan. A surprisingly close loss to St. Mary's was promising, but the Bulldogs really took flight during a late November trip to Fresno. Drake was scheduled to be one of three sacrifical lambs at the Fresno State Classic, one of those tournaments like the old Hawkeye Challenge designed to get the host three easy wins and some ticket sales. But Drake smashed Fresno State by 10 in the opener, then hammered Northern Arizona and Cal State Bakersfield, setting off a surge up the Kenpom ratings. Drake is now ranked No. 86, ahead of Big Ten teams Northwestern and Nebraska, and virtually tied with Purdue. This is no pushover.
Giacoletti has done it by jettisoning his predecessor's reliance on lumbering big men and giving his guards and wings the green light. Drake is taking 36 percent of its field goal attempts from three, and shooting 41 percent from outside the arc. The Bulldogs are getting a third of their points from behind the three-point line, making them one of the nation's best -- and most dependent -- perimeter teams.
Four Bulldogs are shooting better than 39 percent from outside the arc, led by guard Richard Carter. The 5'11 senior leads Drake with 20.6 points per game, and pitches in 4.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists. He is joined in the backcourt by Gary Ricks, Jr. (6'1, 182), who scores 12.7 points per game, dishes out 3.9 assists, and shoots 43 percent from three. Both Carter and Ricks are solid perimeter defenders, generating 4.4 steals per game between them. Junior Karl Madison (5'10, 175) comes off the bench to spell them; while Madison is nowhere near the scoring threat as the two starters, he is a capable distributor and defender.
Drake doesn't have much of an interior game. A pair of 6'11 centers, senior Seth Van Deest and freshman Jacob Enevold Jensen, give the Bulldogs some interior size, but neither player is an offensive threat or prolific shot blocker. What the Bulldogs have are a small army of 6'6 gunners: Senior Aaron Hawley (6'8, 197, 7.9 ppg), juniors Chris Caird (6'6, 215, 6.9 ppg) and Trevor Berkeley (6'6, 200, 4.7 ppg), and freshman Blake Danielak (6'7, 190, 7.7 ppg) are all threats from the outside. Danielak scored 18 on Iowa Wesleyan, but has not played in Drake's last four games due to injury. He's questionable for Saturday. (EDIT: Bulldog Review informs us that he's out with mono.) The only Drake forward who does not shoot from the outside is Daddy Ugbede, who gets a pass because his name is Daddy Ugbede.
There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in figuring out what Iowa is doing defensively at the moment. Despite getting burned from the perimeter against Villanova and Notre Dame, Iowa still ranks fifth nationally in three-point percentage allowed. Are Iowa's gaudy perimeter defensive statistics the result of facing poor-shooting teams early in the season, or did those teams shoot so poorly because of Iowa's defense? Saturday's game could go a long way toward answering that riddle.
As for the other side of the court, Drake has been fairly mediocre on defense. Opponents are posting a 49.6 percent effective field goal rate against the Bulldogs, right at the national average. Drake is solid on the glass, allowing opponents to rebound just one of every four misses, and they do not let opponents get to the line. Opponents have shot frequently from the outside against Drake (36 percent of all points scored on the Bulldogs have been on three-point baskets) but Iowa could find some success attacking the interior: Drake is undersized, and bench players Enevold Jensen and Ugbede have been particularly foul-prone. This could be an Aaron White game. Drake handled the high-tempo game from Nebraska Omaha with relative ease, but they were certainly pushed to go faster than they wished against the Mavericks and needed 35 points in the last 10 minutes to win.
Iowa should be able to handle the Bulldogs Saturday; Drake hasn't played anyone of Iowa's caliber, and the only opponent that was close beat them. But Iowa is going to learn a lot Saturday, and the Hawkeyes are in for a fight.