Iowa Hawkeyes (9-4) at Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2)
Date: December 30, 2014
Time: Noon CT
Location: Value City Arena, Columbus
Point spread: Ohio State -8.5
Kenpom: Ohio State -9
The Hawkeyes open Big Ten play with some BRUNCHSKETBALL against Ohio State, the nation's No. 20 team. Television coverage is on ESPN2 for the unemployed or WatchESPN for those who have to work.
Of course, that assumes that Iowa fans will want to see this game, an assumption we don't necessarily make. Ohio State's statistics make them look considerably better than that No. 20 ranking would suggest: The Buckeyes are scary good. Ohio State is second nationally in effective field goal rate, fifth in two-point attempts (a ridiculous 57.7%), sixth from behind the arc (42%) and fourth in fewest blocked shots. Defensively, they generate a ton of turnovers -- more than one out of every four opponent possessions ends in a slip-up -- and refuse to foul, with a blocked shot rate not far from Iowa's. And this OSU team, unlike some of Thad Matta's past lineups, loves to run: The Buckeyes have the third-shortest average possession time of any team nationally and have topped 73 possessions in each of their last four games (Iowa has hit that mark three times in their last five games, to be fair).
The only saving grace: Ohio State has done all of this against one of the nation's weakest non-conference schedules. The Buckeyes drew Louisville in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and lost. They got North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic two weeks ago, and promptly lost again. Aside from those two games, OSU has not played a team currently ranked in the Kenpom top 90. Their best win is against Marquette, a team that is 8-4 with a loss to Nebraska-Omaha. Their second-best win is probably Wright State, a team that lost to FIU and Evansville and has a player named J.T. Yoho. We know Ohio State can do it against sub-standard competition, but Iowa becomes their third-best opponent the moment Tuesday's game tips.
It's a typical Thad Matta Ohio State team, heavy on athletic wings who can shoot from everywhere. Freshman guard D'Angelo Russell (6'5, 180) leads the team in minutes (30.2) and points (17.7), and is second in assists (5.3) and steals (1.8). He's only been held to single digits in scoring once, the aforementioned win over Marquette, and has averaged more than four three-point baskets per game in the last three games on a season-long average of 47 percent. He's joined by a familiar face: Senior point guard Shannon Scott (6'1, 185, 7.9 ppg, 7.7 apg), who is seventh nationally in assist rate and 18th in steals. When he needs to go to the bench, Matta moves Russell to the point and brings in freshman bomber Kam Williams (6'2, 175), a guy who lights up a Kenpom sheet. Williams is the fourth most efficient player in the country at this point, and is making 44 percent from behind the arc to go with an absurdly low turnover rate (even for a catch-and-shoot guard). The three guards are all that OSU has needed; they simply don't get in foul trouble, and Russell is capable of playing all 40 minutes if needed.
On the frontline, the Buckeyes look a little like Iowa. Amir Williams (6'11, 250, 8.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) plays in the middle, with sophomore forward Marc Loving (6'7, 215, 12.4 ppg) and senior Sam Thompson (6'7, 200, 9.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) around him. The Buckeyes aren't imposing, but are excellent in transition and capable of making a shot from everywhere. Loving is shooting an absurd 58 percent from three, with as many attempts as the Oglesby-like Kam Williams. The other Williams is blocking nearly one in seven shots attempted by OSU opponents and has made 69 percent of his own shot attempts. Thompson isn't as imposing as Loving or Williams, but he plays tons of minutes and doesn't have any obvious weakness beyond a love for his mediocre perimeter jumper (9/35 on the year). Freshmen Keita Bates-Diop (6'7, 190, 5.3 ppg) and Jae'Sean Tate (6'4, 190) help off the bench, and senior Trey McDonald (6'8, 240) has the size to play center when needed.
Tuesday's game will be the third time this season where it will be imperative for Iowa to slow an opponent and limit transition baskets. Iowa did it with ridiculous effectiveness against North Carolina, using a halfcourt trap to make the Tar Heels crawl up the court and protecting the ball on offense to prevent easy baskets. It failed miserably in both of those tasks against Iowa State, another team that relies on transition play. Ohio State is like those teams, and if Iowa tries to run with them, Iowa is going to lose.
The key to Iowa's success against North Carolina might well have been that the game was on the road, where it felt no obligation to get up and down the court for the sake of the fans and could strangle UNC's typically high-speed attack. In that sense, a trip to Ohio State could be a blessing. But if there is one thing that cannot be attacked through defensive strategy, it's three-point shooting, and OSU has three-point shooters in waves. Even if Iowa can do what it wants on defense and slow Ohio State down, it might not have enough to stop death from above.