Time: 3:30 PM CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City\
Line: Iowa -8
When Iowa thumped Northwestern 70-50 in Evanston three weeks ago, it seemed clear what the story was: a good Iowa team had merely done the expected, soundly beating a vastly diminished Wildcat squad while playing only adequately themselves. Since that game, the narrative has shifted somewhat. Northwestern has had a surprisingly good month, beating Illinois in Assembly Hall, losing to Indiana by just eight points, then beating Minnesota and Purdue in Evanston. They also lost to Nebraska, so things haven't been uniformly rosy, but even so, Iowa's solid win looks better than it did in retrospect. There's some fight left in this Wildcat team.
But will the Hawks be able to replicate the result of the earlier game? If so, Iowa will need to continue their strong defensive play, especially when it comes to shooting guard Reggie Hearn. After being held to just six points on 2-6 shooting in the previous Iowa game, Hearn has had three games of over 20 points and made a living at the free throw line, going for a combined 30 trips to the charity stripe in the Wildcats' three wins. Northwestern has also gotten stronger play from forward Jared Swopshire, who was held to two points against Iowa but has since averaged 12.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and continued strong play by starting point guard and general pest Dave Sobolewski.
The real story behind Northwestern's wins, however, has been on the defensive end of things. They held Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue all below 40% field goal shooting and less than a point per possession. For an Iowa team that has struggled to shoot better than 40% from the field, Northwestern's improved defense could pose a stern test. The Hawkeyes will continue to search for someone to replace the shooting punch that Devyn Marble used to provide. Given Northwestern's lack of size inside, Adam Woodbury, Melsahn Basabe and Aaron White will all have chances to generate some easy points in the paint.
The biggest challenge Iowa will face against Northwestern may be the psychological one of recovering from a string of brutal close losses. Anyone who watched the Hawks' games against Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin knows that this team has played with a tremendous amount of focus and intensity, especially on defense, and it wouldn't be surprising if they suffered a let-up after so many close disappointing losses. Their number one goal, as always with Northwestern, will be to keep the Wildcats off of the three-point line. The Hawks have done an admirable job limiting the number of clean looks the opposition gets from long distance, but Northwestern will test their three-point defense at every opportunity. In the last game, the Wildcats went 4-26 from three, but it will take a very focused effort to limit them to an equally poor performance this time around.
Iowa will also face the challenge of inspiring a possibly demoralized fan base. Against Wisconsin, the home crowd at Carver-Hawkeye served as a very effective sixth man, producing deafening noise and a very intimidating atmosphere. With the team's NCAA hopes fading, some of the early enthusiasm may have faded, which could be costly for this young team.
Best case scenario: A two-hour dunkathon that leaves the Sobolewskis and Swopshires of the world cowering in purple fear.
Worst case scenario: Northwestern gets their three-point shooting going, their 1-3-1 flummoxes Iowa's young guards, and Devyn Marble finally fades away, Claude Rains style, until there is just an empty jersey haunting the sideline.