Iowa (19-6, 8-4) vs. Wisconsin (21-5, 8-5)
Date: February 22, 2014
Time: 11:00 a.m. CT
Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena
Line: Iowa -6
After a weird week where they took a trip to Bloomington for a non-game, the Hawkeyes return to action Saturday against bitter rival Wisconsin. During football season, Iowa ran a fan stunt with red, white, and blue pom-poms that led to Iowa fans shaking red pom-poms during a game against Wisconsin. With one of the most important games of the year on tap today, we've surely learned from that mistake, right?
Dear God, we're stupid.
Anyway, it's Bo Ryan's Badgers in town Saturday morning, winners of four consecutive games including a 13-point road victory over Michigan last weekend. They're back on track, they're a dangerous opponent, and they're playing to pass Iowa into third in the conference race. And, even if they weren't all of those things, they'd still be Wisconsin, and to hell with Wisconsin.
The Badgers aren't quite their usual slow selves this year. Wisconsin's offense is still tortoise-like, but opponents are getting early shots on the Badgers' defense. Wisconsin doesn't do what it always doesn't do: the Badgers don't foul, they don't force turnovers, and they don't block shots. But Wisconsin contests everything, especially inside the arc, they clog passing lanes, and they try to slow opponents through brute force.
There just isn't that much brute force on this team, so the emphasis has been on limiting ball movement. Wisconsin is allowing the lowest number of assists per field goals made of any team nationally, an odd statistic for a team that doesn't steal the ball worth a damn. Wisconsin's defense isn't about jumping passes. It's about making sure those passes never happen. Driving guards have to shoot inside, and those shots are always contested -- but rarely blocked -- by Wisconsin's forwards. Players who get the ball in the post don't find double teams, but do get intense interior defense from the Badgers' front line.
Offensively, Wisconsin's early reliance on Sam Dekker has diffused out to four top scorers. Dekker still leads the team in scoring, but his 13.5 ppg average has fallen slightly during conference play, in which the 6'8 sophomore is scoring 12.4 points per contest and been held to 11 or fewer in seven of Wisconsin's 13 games (including 8 points in the first game against Iowa). Center Frank Kaminsky has put up 13.0 ppg and grabbed a team-leading 6.2 rebounds per game. His 25 points against Michigan were crucial. Ben Brust, who will probably again be an object of scorn to the Carver Hawkeye faithful today, is also scoring 13.0 ppg and shooting 39 percent from behind the arc. Junior point guard Traevon Jackson is adding 10.7 ppg and dishes out 4.0 assists per game. All four of the Badgers' top scorers are perimeter threats, and Wisconsin shoots nearly 38 percent from three. Josh Gasser, a junior guard, rounds out the Badgers' starting five, but his role is fairly limited.
Bo Ryan relies on his starters to play 30 minutes a game. Sixth man Nigel Hayes, a 6'7 freshman forward, gets 18 minutes a game and can score (7.9 ppg) when he's there. Some combination of those six players have been on the court for 60 percent of the time in Wisconsin's last five games. Freshman guard Bronson Koenig provides relief to Wisconsin's three-guard starting five, but he's largely a stopgap.
Wisconsin hasn't won at Carver Hawkeye since an overtime victory in Fran McCaffery's first season in charge. That Wisconsin team was one of the best in the country; that Iowa team was 11-20. Iowa continues to be a stylistic problem for Wisconsin's slow-down offensive style, but if the Badgers protect the ball and rebound well, they can slow down Iowa's transition attack enough to get the game in their favor. Watch for second chance points: If Iowa is getting offensive rebounds, Wisconsin is in trouble.
There are a lot of weird things about this game: The early weekend start, the impromptu week off for the Hawkeyes, the red cards in the seats (sigh). Iowa will need to overcome all of those things Saturday morning. If they want to cement their status as a Big Ten championship contender for the stretch run, they'll do just that.