Conference play is upon us now; time to put your marker down on how many B1G wins Iowa will have this year. If you need some help making up your mind, here are five reasons to be optimistic about Iowa basketball this year... and five reasons to be pessimistic about them, too.
* Three-game winning streak! The biggest reason that the mood around Iowa basketball isn't oppressively gloomy at the moment is, of course, this little three-game winning streak Iowa is currently riding into league play. It ties Iowa's longest winning streak of the season (a three-win spurt to start the season), but unlike that run, this collection of wins has included triumphs over a few teams with actual pulses (Drake, Boise State). They've also featured Iowa's best overall play: the defense has made steps towards respectability (or at least mild crapitude, which is still an upgrade from the flaming bag of poop we saw earlier in the season), the shooting has been decent, Devyn Marble has been exceptional, Melsahn Basabe has been starting to resemble the promising player we saw a year ago, and Aaron White has been blowing up like no redhead since Carrot Top's last roid rage. Hooray for good basketball (and wins)!
* The emergence of Devyn Marble. As noted above, one of the key reasons for Iowa's recent turnaround has been the excellent play of Marble, who was deservedly tabbed Big Ten Player of the Week for his recent efforts. Our blog-buddies at High Porch Picnic have done an excellent job breaking down the improvements in his game; rather than rehash it, I'd recommend that you just go over there and read it. I'll wait.
* Steady old Matt Gatens. While Marble's excellent recent form has dominated discussion to an extent, we would be remiss if we didn't give a little love to the proverbial "Steady Eddie" of Iowa hoops: Matt Gatens. He's the team's leading scorer (14.0 ppg), in the top four in rebounds, assists, and steals per game, and a lethal free throw shooter (89%) (And big kudos to Gatens for finding a way to exploit that final skill more than he has in years past: he's currently on pace to smash his previous career-best for free throw attempts in a season.) History may still judge him as a sidekick who was forced into the hero role, but he's mostly been a rock for an Iowa team that's badly needed consistent performers this year.
* The rise of the newcomers. One of the bright spots for Iowa this season has been the play of some of the freshmen, particularly Dunk L'Orange (aka Aaron White) and Ogles3 (aka Josh Oglesby). White struggled some after a coming out party (19 pts, 10 reb) in the season opener, but he's been a big reason for Iowa's success lately: he's averaging a 15-5 over the current winning streak. Oglesby has been the team's best long-range gunner (his 20 made 3s is tied for best on the team with Gatens, and his 41% shooting percentage from deep is second only to Zach McCabe's 44% among players who regularly launch 3s) and led the team in scoring in several early games. They've both provided an invaluable scoring punch off the bench.
* The schedule. Iowa plays ten of their eighteen league games against the teams projected by ESPN to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten: Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Penn State. They play Ohio State and Michigan State just once apiece. That's helpful. The schedule is also back-loaded with those games, which could make it easier to go on a late-season run.
* The schedule. On the other hand, Iowa's first seven games in league play are brutal: Purdue, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Ohio State, at Michigan State, Michigan, and at Purdue. It's entirely likely -- if not probable -- that Iowa won't be favored in a single one of those games. An 0-7 start in league play is, unfortunately, a very real possibility. That would certainly kill a lot of the good vibes for the Hawkeye cagers and put them in quite a hole for the rest of the season.
Even without games against those teams, though, the schedule is about to get much, much harder. Iowa's played one of the easiest schedules in the country so far and still struggled. Four of their eight wins have come against teams ranked below 300 in the latest KenPom ratings and just two have been against teams rated higher than 200th: Chicago State (344), North Carolina A&T (306), Northern Illinois (340), IPFW (247), Brown (298), Drake (164), Central Arkansas (325), and Boise State (111). In comparison, there are just three B1G teams ranked lower than 60th in those same ratings: Nebraska (120), Iowa (127), and Penn State (148). There be rough seas ahead for the H.M.S. Hawkeye.
* The defense. Here, let's just let ESPN sum it up:
Worst scoring defense. Worst field goal percentage defense. Worst 3-point defense.
Yikes. To be fair, the defense has looked a bit sharper in this current three-game winning streak, but it's going to need to be sharper still to keep Iowa competitive in the Big Ten.
* The woeful play down low. In 23 combined minutes of action per game this year, Andrew Brommer and Devon Archie are averaging 5.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.2 steals per game, 0.6 blocks per game, and 2.1 turnovers per game. They're also averaging a foul every seven minutes, combined. Suffice to say, DeAndrew Bromchie probably won't be making too many All-Big Ten squads this year. But we knew we were unlikely to get too much production out of the 5-spot this year; the surprise (and bigger disappointment) has been the play out of the power forwards. Zach McCabe has struggled with inconsistent performances and consistent foul trouble while Melsahn Basabe has only recently started to resemble the exciting player he was last year. Hopefully that upward trend continues, but he, McCabe, and White are still going to have to figure out how to avoid being outmuscled by some of their beefy Big Ten foes.
* Whither Eric May? The preseason talk was that May had turned the corner, flipped the switch, had the light come on, [insert cliche of your choice] and was primed to convert his prodigious athleticism into more consistent production on the court. Two months in and it seems like that talk was probably a bit premature. In fact, his per-game averages look eerily similar to... last year's Eric May:
That's not quite what we were hoping for from May this year.
* The returning stars. May hasn't been the only returning player to endure an underwhelming start to the season, though: two of last season's brightest stars, Melsahn Basabe and Bryce Cartwright, have had utterly forgettable seasons. While Basabe has finally started to look better (he's gone for double figures in points and 9+ rebounds in five of his last six games), he looked like a shadow of himself early on (see: that four-game stretch where he scored 2 ppg; not coincidentally, Iowa went 1-3 in those games). Unlike Basabe, Cartwright can't even point to a recent uptick in play to provide some optimism: outside of his 8 assists (to 3 turnovers) against Central Arkansas, he's largely been a non-factor in Iowa's wins. He's shooting far worse than he did last year (39% to 28%). The good news is that physical ailments can -- hopefully -- explain most of the lackluster play from both guys: Basabe struggled with his weight early on and Cartwright has been hampered by a balky hamstring and a concussion. Hopefully as their health improves, their productivity will too -- Iowa will sure as hell need them to win games in the Big Ten this year.
As for me? I'm going with 4-5 wins this year. I think they beat Penn State, Nebraska, and Northwestern or Minnesota at CHA, pick off one of those teams on the road, and pull off a shocker against a team they have no business beating (on paper, at least). Don't ask me who that is, though; last year I wouldn't have pegged Iowa to demolish Michigan State or slip by Purdue in the regular season finale... but that's exactly what happened.
EDIT: And here's the league schedule, since looking at that might help you decide where Iowa can poach a few wins:
12/31: at Wisconsin
1/4: at Minnesota
1/7: Ohio State
1/10: at Michigan State
1/17: at Purdue
1/29: at Indiana
2/4: Penn State
2/9: at Northwestern
2/16: at Penn State
2/26: at Illinois
2/28: at Nebraska