It's a trap!
Iowa (20-11, 9-9) vs. Northwestern (13-18, 4-14)
Date: March 14, 2013
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT (approx.)
Location: United Center, Chicago
Line: Iowa -10
Iowa opens the Big Ten Tournament Thursday as a surprising #6 seed* against arguably the worst team in the conference, a team the Hawkeyes have defeated twice this season by a total of 34 points. Yes, Northwestern's conference record and eight-game losing streak are pretty horrendous, but it goes even further than that. The Wildcats are a perfect matchup for Iowa. For one, they're a horrible rebounding team; they do not rebound their own misses (320th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage) and they're happy to give you second chances of your own (316th in offensive rebounding percentage allowed). They're wholly dependent on outside shooting for offense (Iowa is 12th nationally in three-point percentage allowed), and yet they get shots blocked like it's a good thing (Northwestern is 333rd nationally in percentage of shots blocked). While they seem to foul the right guys (the Cats are fourth nationally in free throw percentage allowed at just 63.9%), they do foul shooters at a high rate. And though Northwestern does a good job of protecting the ball, Iowa's perimeter trap has a knack for turning low-tempo, low-turnover outfits like this (and Purdue and Wisconsin) into slot machines that kick out basketballs on almost every combination.
In other words, Iowa should completely shut down Northwestern's outside shooting, generate turnovers and fast break opportunities on the perimeter, and have Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni throw a block party in the paint. And not only can Iowa afford to miss shots from the outside -- the one thing it loves to do poorly -- but it would probably help them get Aaron White (the country's fourth-best player at free throw rate) to the line, where he is at his most deadly. The interior garbage game also suits players like Woodbury and Olaseni, as well. In other words, Iowa should be able to play its usual game and coast to victory over a hopelessly overmatched team.
And yet, it's the Big Ten tournament, played in Northwestern's backyard (Kenpom has the game classified as "semi-away", which describes every football game Iowa's played in Evanston in the past decade) against a team that, in the recent past, has had a knack for giving the Hawkeyes fits. Prior to this season, Iowa had lost its previous five games against Northwestern; in fact, there was only one player on the team -- senior Eric May -- who had witnessed a victory over the Wildcats prior to this year. There's also the difficulty of beating a team three times in one season. More importantly, there is the trap factor of all of these things combined with the absolute necessity of two Big Ten Tournament wins to keep any hope of making the NCAA Tournament alive. For five days, I have heard plenty of questions about Iowa's potential ability to defeat Michigan State but not one about the chance of losing to Northwestern. If the look-ahead factor overtakes this team -- and they're still young enough that it very well could -- Iowa might end up in a dogfight with the Wildcats.
This game is a no-win proposition for the Hawkeyes: Win and merely maintain the same fringe-ish bubble candidacy for another day, lose and go home to prepare for the NIT. These are the games that a serious team handles out of obligation, but handles nonetheless. Friday would be a test of talent, but Thursday is a test of maturity, and Iowa needs to prove it has grown up.
* Odd sidenote: Not only have #6 seeds gone 14-1 in the first round of the Big Ten tournament -- Minnesota lost to Illinois in 1999 -- but Iowa has never lost a Big Ten tournament game as a #6 seed. The only other time Iowa has been on the #6 line, it won four games in four days to take the 2001 conference title. That team started its title run with a 72-55 win over #11 seed Northwestern.
The hairs on the back of your neck just stood up, didn't they?