Iowa Hawkeyes (15-4, 4-2) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (10-10, 3-4)
Date: January 25
Time: 11:00 a.m. CT
Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston
Point spread: Iowa -9.5
Iowa finishes its first home-and-home of the season against Northwestern Saturday. On paper, this should not be much of a game: The Hawkeyes throttled the Wildcats by 26 in Iowa City just two weeks ago, the third straight conference curbstomping suffered by the Wildcats at the beginning of the Big Ten season. When Northwetern got back on the bus that afternoon, it was unquestionably the worst team in the conference.
And then Northwestern beat Illinois. And then the Wildcats went on the road and knocked off Indiana, and then they took out Purdue in double overtime. The sole loss in that stretch, to Michigan State, was by a respectable 14 points. And so the question is: Did Northwestern change anything?
Offensively, the Wildcats might actually be worse than they were on January 9. They are both slow (339th nationally in tempo) and inefficient (325th nationally and the worst mark among all major conference teams). They don't shoot well (45.7 eFG%, 310th nationally), and they don't rebound many of those misses (336th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage). They shoot just 29.8 percent from three, a staggeringly low figure for a team that takes more than two out of every five shots from behind the arc. Of course, the WIldcats are also a horrendous 46.3 percent inside that arc, and one out of every seven shots they attempt is blocked (340th nationally). This is arguably the worst offensive team Iowa will play all year.
Where Northwestern has found its stride is on defense. The Wildcats are now one of the nation's best defensive teams, allowing opponents to shoot at just a 44.5 percent effective rate. Northwestern isn't flashy: the Wildcats don't block many shots or generate many turnovers. They simply prevent easy baskets and force teams to shoot to win. In their three losses at the start of the conference slate, Northwestern allowed 81 points per game. During this mini-winning streak, that number has fallen to 51, and that's with a double overtime game included. Northwestern is now doing what Michigan and Wisconsin have done in the past: Limit possessions, make your opponents take bad shots, don't give up fast break buckets, and see if you can get a late shot to win.
There isn't much new on the personnel front since the teams last saw each other on January 9 -- you can read the previous review for that info -- or in the offensive gameplan. Drew Crawford leads the team in scoring in almost every game and his 15.3 points per game represent a quarter of all points scored by the Wildcats this year. Jershon Cobb, who scored 18 against Iowa in the teams' first meeting, has been streaky from the field and mediocre at the charity stripe since. Romanian center Alex Olah remains offensively challenged, but is pulling down plenty of rebounds. Iowa fouled Olah out of the game in early January, and look for the Hawkeyes to try to do it again.
This is not Michigan or Wisconsin -- at the end of the day, Northwestern does not shoot the ball remotely well enough to match what the Wolverines did to Iowa Wednesday -- but it's a dangerous game in that Northwestern has had so much success at stopping opponents, particularly at home. Further, Northwestern's three wins came against teams that are themselves in the second or third echelon of the conference. If Iowa falls into the trap, if the Hawkeyes don't push the pace on offense or get into the lane to set up shots, it could be a long morning. That just doesn't look that likely against a team that allowed the Hawkeyes to score 93 just two weeks ago.