Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa opens Big Ten play against the nation's best team. Welcome to the nation's best basketball conference.
Indiana (12-1) vs. Iowa (11-2)
Date: December 31, 2012
Time: 3:00 pm CT
Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
Line: Indiana -7
Programming note: I joined CrimsonCast this week to discuss today's game and other Big Ten stuff.
Iowa opens up the most important Big Ten campaign in more than a decade Monday, when the Hawkeyes host the fifth-ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana was preseason #1, and remains Kenpom's top selection despite an overtime loss to Butler on December 15.
Indiana's led by Cody Zeller, who is almost indisputably the country's best forward and the best running forward in years. Zeller is averaging 16.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Guard Victor Oladipo is still there, yes, and pouring in 13.5 points per contest with 5.6 boards and 2.5 steals per game. And those steals, which inevitably lead to dunks when it's Oladipo swiping them, are the true daggers thrown by the Hoosiers. Five Indiana players -- Zeller, Oladipo, Christian Watford, Will Sheehey, and Jordan Hulls -- average more than 10 points per game.
Indiana's statistics to date are so good that Kenpom has them projected with a better-than-average chance to win every game in the Big Ten (that is adjusted to 14-4 because none of them are 100 percent locks and there will be games where the other team converts on its 35 percent chance). The Hoosiers are #1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, #3 in effective field goal percentage, #11 in offensive rebound percentage, and #10 in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. Indiana is third in the nation in three-point shooting percentage at 42.1 percent, ninth nationally in two-point field goal percentage at 56.6 percent, 23rd from the free throw line at 75.8 percent. That's not even getting into defense, where Indiana is tenth in efficiency, 16th in effective field goal percentage allowed, eleventh in two-point shooting percentage allowed, and 19th in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. They get to the paint, they draw fouls, they make shots, they make free throws, and they don't let you do any of the same things, and they will run you out of the gym if you let them. That is how Indiana wins.
The good news for Iowa: We do many of the same things. We don't allow teams to shoot at a high effective percentage, mostly because we guard the perimeter especially well. We don't put teams on the free throw line at an inordinate rate. We rebound an extraordinarily high percentage of our own misses, and we get to the line ourselves quite often. We play at breakneck tempo.
The bad news for Iowa: The Hoosiers do all of those things better than we do, or at least they have so far this season, and where Iowa's true strength has lied -- in distributing the ball to scorers and shooters, in making that extra pass -- Indiana is an extremely effective deterrent. Iowa's advantages lie in pass distribution on offense and shot blocking ability on defense, two things Indiana can readily and capably negate simply by playing the same way they've played their non-conference season, making outside shots and drawing contact inside. Throw in Iowa's freshmen-heavy lineup in its first Big Ten game together, and it's not a recipe for an upset.
I have absolute faith that Iowa's going to pick off a game or two from the Big Ten's elite teams this year. But those wins are going to come where Iowa can contrast its style against a superior opponent and use that contrast to take the opponent out of its element and nullify any talent advantage. There are so few contrasts here that such an outcome looks unlikely.