Iowa basketball returns to action with a game against Virginia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, an event which has been a nightmare for Iowa over the years. Can they buck that trend this year?
Iowa (5-1) at Virginia Tech (5-0)
Date: November 27, 2012
Time: 6:15 pm CT
Location: Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, VA
Line: Virginia Tech -2.5
When you fall into an abyss as deep and dark as the one Iowa basketball found itself in during the latter half of the '00s, you wind up with a pretty extensive checklist of things to do as you claw your way back to respectability and, later, genuine quality. After all, you hit rock bottom by losing (and losing a lot) and that was something Iowa did with depressing regularity after the thrilling heights of the 05-06 season.
For instance, one of the first notable accomplishments Fran was able to record at Iowa was a win over a ranked opponent. Iowa had lost 23 games in a row to teams ranked in the AP Top 25 before toppling #6 Purdue in that thrilling 67-65 win on Senior Day in 2011. Last year Fran was able to mark off several more items on that checklist. Iowa hadn't had a winning record since finishing 17-14 in 06-07; they finished 18-17 last season. Iowa hadn't won a game in the Big Ten Tournament since 05-06 (when they won the whole thing); last year they beat Illinois, 64-61, in the first round of the Big Ten Tourney. Similarly, Iowa hadn't played in the postseason (NCAA or NIT) since 05-06; last year they made the NIT and won their opening round game against Dayton. These are all steps along the path Iowa needs to walk to get back to being a good program again.
The Big Ten-ACC Challenge is the next thing Fran needs to tick off his rebuild checklist at Iowa. The Challenge has not been kind to Iowa; as Doc pointed out in his article yesterday, Iowa has a 2-9 all-time record in the event and they've lost six games in a row to ACC teams in the Challenge. That's... well, that's bad. Really bad. Not counting newbie Nebraska (0-1 in the event), that 2-9 record is the worst among all teams in the Challenge. Only two other teams that have been regular participants have won two or fewer games in the Challenge (Miami is 1-4; Virginia Tech is 2-5, although FUN FACT: both wins have come against Iowa). Every other Big Ten team (again, not counting Nebraska) has won at least four games in the event. No other team -- in the Big Ten or the ACC -- has lost nine games.
What makes that record even worse is the fact that Iowa can't even claim to the victim of lopsided matchups; the Challenge attempts to pit teams of similar strength against one another. And since Iowa's been toiling in the depths of the Big Ten for several years, that also means they've gotten matched up with low-level ACC teams... and they still can't get wins. The last Iowa win was a mind-numbing 45-42 win over North Carolina State in (what else?) 05-06. Beating Virginia Tech isn't going to do wonders for Iowa's RPI (they're currently ranked 155th), but it would be another positive sign for the progress of the rebuild here.
As far as the game itself... despite their gaudy record and the fact that all five of their wins have been by double-digits, KenPom isn't that high on Virginia Tech (#82); Iowa dipped to #58 after their loss to Wichita State last week. That said, he still makes them a slight favorite over Iowa -- 56% to 44% -- and pegs them for a narrow 69-67 win. Tech has put up gobs of points so far -- 80 or more in four of their five games this year -- but that seems to have a bit more to do with the fact that they've played poor defenses (and poor teams in general; all five of their opponents this year are currently ranked in the #200s by KenPom) than a particularly blazing pace (they check in at just 193rd in the nation in KenPom's adjusted tempo ratings). Still, they're not afraid to run and I don't expect this to be a boring, slow-things-to-a-crawl game (that would be Virginia-Wisconsin).
The big reason behind Tech's hot start? They've been shooting the lights out -- they have an effective FG% of 56.4% and hey're making 51% of their 2-point field goals and an alarming 42.7% of their 3-point field goals. 3-point defense is going to be critical for Iowa in this game. Tech also makes their free throws (74.5%) and doesn't turn the ball over much (just 15.8% of their possessions). This game looks like a daunting challenge for Iowa's defense. Erick Green (24.4 ppg, 50% FG) and Jarell Eddie (18.8 ppg, 57% FG, 59% 3FG) will be the two guys that Iowa will need to focus on slowing down; hopefully they do a better job of defending them than they did Wichita State's Cleanthony Early (25 points on 7/13 shooting).
What does Tech do poorly? Their 2-point FG% defense is pretty poor (teams are making 52% of those shots against them) and they don't get a lot of steals (only 7.5% of their opponents' possessions) or force a lot of turnovers (just 16.1% of their opponents' possessions). This could be a game where Iowa feeds the post early and often; if Adam Woodbury and Melsahn Basabe can avoid foul trouble, they could have big games tonight. If nothing else, they should find the going much easier than it was against Wichita State's fearsome posts. But the main thing Iowa needs to do to win this game? Just make your damn shots. Iowa made only 26% of their shots against Wichita State, which... yeah. You're not going to win many games doing that.
This is Iowa's first true road game (and, in fact, their only such game until they head to Ann Arbor to play Michigan on January 6th), but Iowa is also the toughest and most talented opponent Virginia Tech has played this year by far. Something has to give here -- hopefully it's the Hokies' undefeated mark. Iowa has very few opportunities to record non-conference wins of any significance this year (of their remaining opponents, only Iowa State and UNI are ranked higher than #300 in the current KenPom ratings). They stumbled in their first opportunity to record a non-conference win of significance (Wichita State) and while a win over Virginia Tech wouldn't rate as highly, it would be a solid addition to Iowa's resume.