On the eve of the New Year, our annual tradition of squeezing in one Big Ten game before the calendar flips is finally here. And while that is no doubt exciting, I've got a bit of a complaint to lodge: Just who the hell thought it was a good idea to play this game at noon on a Tuesday? Sure, a holiday is just around the corner, but New Year's Eve Eve is not a holiday. And, sure, the game is nationally televised, but how many people will actually get to watch it live? I might have understood if they had scheduled it for this time slot on Wednesday, considering more people might have that day off of work. But scheduling it for the middle of a workday is just absolutely dumb and makes no sense.
But, stupid scheduling aside, Iowa doesn't get to ease into their Big Ten slate by playing someone like Rutgers at home. Rather, they get to travel to Columbus to take on an Ohio State team that hasn't played the toughest schedule in the world, but still looks pretty scary.
The Hawkeyes are pretty clearly the underdog here, and it's going to take a great defensive effort and a much better offensive performance than we've seen this season to knock off the Buckeyes. I'm not saying a win is impossible, but I am saying Iowa has their work cut out for them.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Monday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, a reminder on how to read this chart: 100 = Division 1 average. Anything above 100 is above average, while anything below 100 is below average. The bigger the number, the better.
This is where the Hawkeyes look to have the severe disadvantage. December has been a very rough month for this offense, and things don't look to get much better here. Iowa's diamond on the chart above is basically dwarfed by that of Ohio State's, and the only advantage the Hawkeyes look to have is on the offensive glass. That's no doubt an important battle to win when you miss as many shots as Iowa tends to, but with the way Ohio State shoots the ball on the other side of the court, I worry that simply getting second chances won't be enough to keep up.
What has me particularly worried about this side of the ball, is the fact that Thad Matta has decided to go the Jim Boeheim route this year, and has his Buckeyes playing exclusively zone on the defensive front. Matta is not new to changing the way his defenses play from year-to-year, but no matter what form they take, they are always tough on defense. And this year is no exception. Iowa's strength on offense (if we can really call it that anymore) is in their big guys; getting the ball in the lane and scoring with Aaron White, Adam Woodbury (if he breaks out of his current slump), Gabe Olaseni, and using Jarrod Uthoff outside. The zone defense aims to take the first part of that last sentence away, and will force the Hawkeyes to be patient and work for open shots. Ohio State's opponents have taken a ton of three point shots this year, and with the way that Iowa shoots them, I'm sure they would be happy if Iowa just settled for a bunch of long jump shots all game long.
That being said, if there is a possible optimistic outlook here, it's that Iowa did play Syracuse and their zone earlier this season, so they do have experience in dealing with it all game. Against the Orange, Iowa knew what they were supposed to do, but it was a matter of execution that held them back. Aaron White is the perfect player to have against a zone because he loves running backdoor lobs on the baseline, and that should be there all game long. Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff both looked pretty comfortable helping to move the ball in the middle of the zone against Syracuse, and if Iowa doesn't fumble those passes on the baseline, like they did against Syracuse, they may have a shot at shooting a decent percentage from the floor or at least drawing fouls. Additionally, a zone defense makes it harder to grab defensive rebounds because you can't always locate a man to box out, so Iowa may be able to dominate on the offensive glass against the Buckeyes.
My main worry for Iowa's offense is that they get lazy, start settling for long distance shot, after long distance shot and don't try to work the zone. If they get into a jump-shooting contest with Ohio State, they are surely going to lose.
Advantage: Ohio State
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Where this game loses comparison to the Syracuse game, is the fact that Ohio State's offense is just as scary as their defense. They are currently boasting the second best eFG% in the nation, which comes from being sixth in three point shooting and fifth in two point shooting. They also prefer to go with a small lineup, in which their power forward spot is usually being manned by someone traditionally classified as a small forward. That means Ohio State usually has four shooters on the floor (except for when Jae'Sean Tate is playing the four spot). On top of that, they also never give the ball to the other team and they rebound a nice chunk of their rare misses. The only thing they don't do well is get to the free throw line. So, Iowa has that going for them.
Now, Iowa matches up on the chart above fairly well with the Buckeyes here. And I should also mention that we should take Ohio State's numbers with a bit of salt, seeing as how they have faced only three Kenpom top 100 teams this season, and Marquette (currently #98) is the only one that they have beat. The Golden Eagles were also the only one of those three that Ohio State was able to average more than 1.00 point per possession (PPP) against. Losses to Louisville and North Carolina are nothing to be ashamed of, but Iowa's defense currently rates out about as good as North Carolina's does. And, despite what feels like a disappointing December, Iowa State is still only the second team to average more than 1.00 PPP against the Hawkeyes this year. Ohio State could definitely be the third, but I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities that they won't be, either.
Yet, with all the optimism I just showed there, I still think Ohio State has the advantage here. Playing on the road against a really good shooting team scares the crap out of me.
Advantage: Ohio State
Team Shooting Tendencies
(All shot charts are courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
As we all know, Iowa is not the greatest shooting team in the nation this year; their eFG% is currently 262nd best in the nation, after all. That being said, they have shot the ball fairly well in the middle portion of the floor this season, and that happens to be right where Woodbury and Uthoff will likely get the ball when they work as the fulcrum against the zone. I'm not saying Iowa should take the majority of their shots from there, but those two can hit that shot with some regularity, so open looks from that area wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
The Buckeyes shot chart, on the other hand, is a bit odd. For being the team with the second best eFG% in the country, there is an awful lot of blue on that chart. There is also an awful lot of red, which means they are either hot or cold, depending on where they are shooting from on the court.
We should be pretty used to this by now, but Ohio State is another opponent that shoots better from the floor than Iowa does. The Hawks shoot better from the free throw line. Unfortunately, they don't get there as often as they have in years past.
Defensively, both teams have been comparable, but Iowa has been better at altering two point attempts.
When we look at shot distribution, both teams are almost identical. The only difference is that while both teams shoot fewer threes than average, Ohio State actual makes theirs on a regular basis.
And, to reiterate what I said earlier, Ohio State's zone has caused their opponents to shoot a ton of threes this season. Barring an unpredictably hot night for the Hawkeyes, that's probably not their best offensive strategy.
Finally, looking at the point distribution, Iowa gets more points than average from two point baskets. Also, despite not getting to the free throw line as frequently this year, they are getting more points than the normal Division I team from the charity stripe, thanks to shooting almost 78% from the line.
Ohio State, meanwhile, gets most of their points from field goals since they don't visit the foul line all that often. And even though they take fewer threes than the average Division I team, they still get slightly more of their points from them, thanks to making 42% of their attempts from long range.
Opposing Players to Know
The first guy to know about on this roster is the true freshman star, D'Angelo Russell. Russell is a shooting guard who can put it on the floor and also fill the net from long range.
Russell, whose first name gives Shot Analytics trouble, plays the most minutes, uses the most possessions, and takes the most shots on this Ohio State team. And not only is he the biggest shot-taker, but he is also one of the best shot-creator's on the roster, sporting an assist rate that Kenpom ranks 102nd best in the country. And with a steal rate that ranks 169th in the country while only getting called for 2 fouls every 40 minutes played, he's also clearly adapted to Thad Matta's aggressive style of defense quickly. If Iowa can find a way to make him work for his points and limit his steals, that would go a long way in helping them win this game.
Shannon Scott is the main point guard on this team. He plays almost as many minutes as Russell, but he doesn't take as many shots or use quite as many possessions. That's probably a good thing for Ohio State, considering he's not the best shooter on the team. But keeping him away from the basket will be important for Iowa in order to avoid high-percentage layups and avoiding him setting up his teammates for open looks (he has the 7th best assist rate in the nation). And before I move on, Scott is another annoying Ohio State guard who has the 16th best steal rate in the country, but only gets whistled for 1.5 fouls per 40 minutes played. Iowa's guards better take care of the ball.
Now, if you're looking for the shooter that Iowa needs to be aware of, look no further than Marc Loving.
He takes about half of his shot attempts from downtown, and he's connected on 57.8% of them this season. Even in the games where Ohio State struggled on offense and lost this season, Loving still put up 13 points (2-3 from three point range) against Louisville and 19 points (5-8 from three point range) against North Carolina. He's going to make threes against the Hawkeyes. Let's just hope that it's more like the Louisville game and less like the North Carolina game.
Small forward Sam Thompson is an athletic freak, who can jump out of the gym. He's not going to blow you away with his ability to shoot the ball with any real consistency, but he knows he's good at the rim, and that's where he plays. He doesn't do much else on offense, but he's always a candidate to put up points. He's also a decent defensive rebounder and shot-blocker, so he can do other things when he's not putting the ball in the basket.
After those four main guys, Thad Matta uses the rest of his players interchangeably. It's pretty clear that the center spot isn't a huge offensive focal point for this team, but the 6'11" Amir Williams is very efficient near the basket and is the best rebounder and shot-blocker on the team. Trey McDonald doesn't play as many minutes, but he's not far off of Williams' production when he does see the floor.
Kam Williams is another freshman to take seriously coming off the bench to either give Russell a breather or slide him over to the point guard position. He actually has the highest offensive efficiency on the team, and takes almost as many shots as Russell does when he's on the court. And, if that wasn't scary enough, he has a 67% eFG% and is shooting 44% from beyond the arc this season.
He was pretty quiet against Louisville and North Carolina, so let's hope he stays quiet against Iowa.
Finally, the last real freshman I'm going to mention coming off the bench, is Jae'Sean Tate. He's not a three point threat, but he knows how to score in the paint. He's only 6'4" and has the body of a wing player, but Matta plays him at the power forward position and he really produces. Despite being under-sized, he has been about as good of a rebounder as the 6'11" Amir Williams has been this year. Tate has also shown the ability to block shots and strip his opponents of the ball, but he has not yet found a way to do so without getting called for a foul on a regular basis yet. He's been held quiet against the three toughest teams that Ohio State has played this season, so he may not do much in this game.
What Kenpom Thinks
Projected Outcome: #41 Iowa 65 (19%), #10 Ohio State 74 (81%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.92, Ohio State 1.04
Projected Possessions: 71
Unsurprisingly, advanced statistics like Ohio State thanks to their offense not sucking the way Iowa's has this season. Home court advantage also plays a part in this projection, as Kenpom currently has Iowa losing only 69-70 when Ohio State visits Carver in a few weeks. However, it's hard to disagree with this projection. Iowa's half court offense has been an issue all season, and betting on them to get it together on the road against a team that plays a very aggressive zone all game seems like a losing wager to me.
But, who knows? Crazier things have happened, and Iowa's defense could always put on a great performance that will make it so a lousy offensive performance doesn't totally kill them. And, in even crazier events, maybe Iowa's offense has a hot night (they've got to have one sometime, right?) where they work the baseline of the zone to success; they are able to move the ball around and knock down open looks from distance; and they are able to generate some easy buckets in transition to help offset some half court struggles.
I doubt all of that happens. But, again, who knows? Life is nothing without dreams. Dare to dream, kids.