For a team that's now 9-16 on the season and absolutely without a prayer of postseason play for the third straight seasons, cause for celebration--or better yet, hand-delivered schadenfreude--is hard to come by. Regardless of the outcome of today's game, Northwestern can always point to the fact that their season, by any objective standard, has gone far better than has Iowa's.
But oh boy. Ohhhhhhh boy.
Just when we'd thought the Wildcats might be ready to put on the big boy pants, the Hawkeyes finally exacted their revenge for Ricky Stanzi's ankle. In a game the 'Cats absolutely had to have, Iowa dominated, 78-65. And just like that, they're right back to being (say it with me here) just Northwestern.
The man of the match for Iowa, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Bill Carmody. Why? Because all he trotted out there on defense was a 1-3-1 trap that begged to be shot over. And that's exactly what Iowa did; the Hawkeyes were 12-24 from the perimeter, and most of those 12 makes were relatively uncontested--as one would expect from a night with 50% 3-point shooting. Sure, the trap put pressure on the ballhandlers, but Northwestern only forced eight turnovers for the game. Moreover, the lack of creativity in Northwestern's defensive calls led to Lickliter and the Hawkeyes abusing it by finding Devan Bawinkel in the corner (over and over) and Brennan Cougill's suddenly unstoppable pick and pop. We're calling that the "pick and popsicle," by the way, and you can't stop us. So we're not precisely sure what Carmody was trying to accomplish on defense; we just know it failed in every conceivable fashion.
As far as the actual Iowa players, credit must go to Bawinkel; after a miserable-looking three to start off the game, he quickly got hot as he kept seeing open looks and finished 5-8 for 15 points. Moreover, he was there for the extra pass when needed, finishing with three assists. Um, that's a season high.
Despite logging only 28 minutes on account of foul trouble, Aaron Fuller managed another double-double with 13 points and 11 boards. Fuller has pulled down at least 8 rebounds in 10 of the 12 conference games thus far, and it's frankly frightening to imagine what would happen if his ankle issues hadn't improved. In closely related news, Andrew Brommer shocked many by only committing one foul in six minutes of play tonight. Snort if you must, but that is below his season average.
Demerits, on the other hand, must go to Cully Payne. Payne played his role admirably, distributing six assists and turning the ball over twice. He certainly wasn't overwhelmed by the Northwestern press, if you want to call it, and it's hard to say he looked like a freshman. So what's the problem? 2-8 from the foul line is the problem. The only reason Northwestern was even in position to still hack-a-Hawk with under a minute to go was Payne's steadfast refusal to put the game away. Granted, he wasn't the only Hawkeye to miss a free throw in Iowa's ghastly 3-11 stretch. But one would certainly hope that as a losing opponent starts hitting threes and fouling--as what happened with the Wildcats--that a team can count on their point guard to keep the game out of reach at the charity stripe.
Now obviously, tonight was an outlier; we could pick a random reader, throw him on the foul line, and he'd make at least three of eight. Same goes for Payne. So we're not going to waste time explaining why 2-8 is bad; it's like saying you shouldn't have a defenseman who commits own goals. Duh.
What we will complain about, however, is that Payne's FT shooting was a pedestrian 63% even before the game (56% now). Whatever factors are contributing to that (our guess: six foot rims in high school) have clearly got to be rectified immediately, otherwise Payne's going to find himself buried at the end of the bench in the last 5 minutes of games. We don't know what Ben Brust's free throw numbers will be next season, but we'll calmly wager that they'll be better than Payne's current clip.
Last, Matt Gatens should be commended for a 16/6/3 performance--even better was the fact that he committed just two turnovers, one of which was an absolutely unconscionable fastball aimed right at Jarryd Cole's hands. You know better, Mr. Gatens.
That aside, Gatens' performance tonight was a welcome respite; as he's been pushed into this "point forward" role almost by default, Gatens' numbers have suffered almost uniformly this season. Compared to last season, his assists are up substantially (2.2 to 3.5), but aside from marginal increases in rebounding and scoring, his metrics have suffered. The assist/TO ratio has fallen from 1.4 to 1.2, his turnovers have nearly doubled (1.6 to 2.9), and his PPWS has dipped from a strong 1.16 to a quite not strong 1.02. Even his shooting percentage has dropped off dramatically:
This, really, is what happens when you must replace Jeff Peterson and Jake Kelly with Payne and John Lickliter.
Gatens' stats tonight were better across the board; only three assists, yes, but his A/TO ratio was 1.5, he only committed two turnovers, and his PPWS was a sensational (and totally aberrant) 1.35. Moreover, he seemed to settle down from games prior as he eases into that newer role. But overall, look--the stats speak for themselves when it comes to how Gatens is most properly used. We're certain Lickliter knows this, and that it's just a terrifying lack of other options when it comes to how the offense is run. Assuming everybody comes back (fingers crossed), Gatens' ratios should bounce back to those '08-'09 type levels. Fingers crossed.
But we digress. Lord, do we digress. The real story is that Iowa--who have lost to everybody but the pipsqueaks on their schedule, have finally beaten a top 100 team. Moreover, they did so at grave consequence to that team's tournament hopes, and there's a certain, small sense of satisfaction that everybody can take from that.
Most of all, it reaffirmed what we'd been waiting to know for far too long: they're still just Northwestern.