The Hawkeyes face the most difficult of all tests Sunday: A must-win conference road game.
Iowa (11-5) vs. Northwestern (10-6)
Date: January 13, 2013
Time: 4:30 pm CT
Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston
Line: Northwestern -2
Debate can go on over whether Thursday night's game against Michigan State was a "must-win" for Iowa, but there is little doubt today's contest at Northwestern fits that category. Iowa has opened Big Ten play with three losses, all to teams in the AP Top 25. Last-minutes defeats against Indiana and Michigan State didn't do much to hurt the Hawkeyes' tournament resume, but they didn't do anything to help it, either.
The premise of Iowa's hypothetical tournament candidacy is that a team finishing 9-9 in the Big Ten will get in, even with a soft non-conference schedule. Of course, the built-in assumption is that the Hawkeyes would get to .500 in conference play, a premise severely undermined by two home losses. As demonstrated yesterday, when Indiana jumped all over Minnesota in the first half at Assembly Hall and unranked Wisconsin obliterated #12 Illinois at home, winning on the road in the Big Ten this year is approaching impossible. If Iowa's going to get to the Big Dance, it has to pick off two (and probably three) conference road games.
Complicating this logic is the fact that Iowa has been atrocious on the road. In two true road games so far this season, at Virginia Tech and Michigan, Iowa has been outscored 190-146. Both opponents lit up the usually-stingy Iowa defense for 95 points. Both opponents shot above 50 percent from the field. Both teams dominated Iowa at the free throw line, the place where Iowa wins games. Even in neutral-site games against Wichita State and Western Kentucky, Iowa was not up to its usual home form. The Northern Iowa game, played in front of a largely partisan crowd in Des Moines, is the only game the Hawkeyes have played away from Carver Hawkeye Arena that looked promising. This is not a positive trend.
Northwestern is led on offense by senior guard Reggie Hearn, who is averaging 14.2 ppg and has scored in double digits in every game he's played in since the opener (Hearn did not play against Michigan or Brown). He is shooting 41.5% from behind the arc, but his attempts have reduced considerably since November. Sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski is contributing 11.4 points and 4.4 assists per game, and has increased his scoring production since Drew Crawford, who was adding 13.5 ppg, had season-ending surgery in December. Senior forward Jared Swopshire leads the team with 5.9 rebounds per contest, adding 9.3 points per game. Kale Abrahamson, a product of West Des Moines, has seen his minutes spike since the Crawford injury has has scored nine or more points in four of Northwestern's last five games. Seven-footer Alex Olah patrols the middle, but is not a significant contributor on offense or on the glass.
On paper, Northwestern is a decent team that isn't in the same league as the first three conference opponents Iowa has faced. The Wildcats are 4-6 in their last 10 games, suffering losses to great teams (Michigan, Minnesota), solid teams (Butler, Maryland, Stanford), and dregs (Illinois-Chicago) in the process. They do what Bill Carmody teams always do: Chuck bombs at a high percentage (37.9% from three this season) and protect the ball (just 17.2% of their possessions end in a turnover, 22nd in the country). They are not a great shooting team overall, they get a ton of shots blocked, and they have no interior presence on defense. The formula for victory should be simple and include a ton of Aaron White on offense and Adam Woodbury and Melsahn Basabe on defense. Drive and kick on them when they are in man, take advantage of the short corner on their zone, and let the superior talent win out.
This is a road game, though, and -- almost as important -- this is the first game against Northwestern for three key components to Iowa's success. If Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell have trouble with Carmody's defense, or if Woodbury falls prey to the myriad back cuts and hidden screens in Carmody's offense, Iowa will have trouble. More importantly, as we saw against Virginia Tech and Michigan, Iowa could do all of those things correctly and still lose if Northwestern is hot from the perimeter.
Iowa has to have this one. Even if the Hawkeyes were to hold serve at home, three road wins in the conference without this one are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and 8-10 in the Big Ten is a long way from 9-9 in the eyes of the selection committee. Win or go home, Hawkeyes.