Iowa (16-4) vs. Northwestern (15-7)
Time: Sunday 2:00 p.m. CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Tickets: University of Iowa
TV/Streaming: Big Ten Network/BTN2Go
Line: Iowa -14
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All numbers in this piece come from Kenpom or Sports Reference. Additionally, ratings in the four factors charts are scaled so that 100 = average. Thus, above 100 is above average, while below 100 is below average. For example, Iowa's 107 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 7% better than the national average this year, while Northwestern's 90 means they have been 10% worse at contesting opponent shots this season.
On this end of the court, we have a match-up between an offense that has averaged 1.15 points per possession in Big Ten play and a defense that has allowed 1.07. Northwestern has faced the fifth toughest conference schedule to date, according to Kenpom. Of course, Iowa has faced the second toughest schedule, so the true talent of this offense should be even better once you adjust for the competition they've faced.
Per usual, when it comes to strengths, Iowa has the clear advantages in the shooting and turnover categories. Northwestern's Big Ten opponents have shot 51% from two-point range and 39% from three-point range in 9 games, which works out to a 54.6% eFG%. That's bad. That's really, really bad.
They are actually above average or right around average in the other three categories, though. They don't force a lot of turnovers, but they aren't terrible, either. Instead, Iowa's advantage here lies in the fact that the Hawkeyes just don't turn the ball over very much.
As for rebounding and free throws, these are Iowa's obvious inconsistent areas. Northwestern has a bevy of forwards and centers that are outstanding defensive rebounders, including Derek Pardon, who is one of the best defensive rebounders in the Big Ten right now as a freshman. The Wildcats also do a great job of keeping their opponents from getting to the free throw line. Neither of these categories are particular strengths for Iowa this season, but they can lose these two factors and still win this side of the ball, as long as they shoot the ball well and don't turn it over.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
On offense, Northwestern doesn't give the ball up very often, and they are a bit above average when it comes to offensive rebounding. However, they have been absolutely terrible shooting the ball from the field, and their minimal ability to get to the free throw line -- and the fact that they are shooting just 63% when they get there -- has not helped them offset their struggles with putting the ball through the basket.
Through 9 Big Ten games, Northwestern is dead last in the conference with a 44.3% eFG%. They are making just 47% of their twos, but more importantly, just 26.3% of their threes against Big Ten foes. Part of their shooting issue is that they are getting more of their shots blocked than any other team in the conference. That's good news for an Iowa team that leads the conference in blocked shot rate. All of these shooting issues have coalesced to help Northwestern average just 0.97 points per possession on offense in conference play.
If the Wildcats are going to pull the upset off, they are likely going to need a second straight cold shooting night from Iowa. Anything can happen in one game, but it's hard to envision Northwestern's offense shooting the ball real well against this Iowa defense.
Style of Play
Northwestern is much slower than Iowa. Their 64 possessions per game is 13th in the conference and 337th in the nation when it comes to pace of play. In the conference, they are holding the ball for almost 19 seconds per offensive possession. Compare that to the national average of 17.2 seconds, and then compare that to Iowa's average offensive possession being 16.8 seconds long against Big Ten opponents. In other words, their characteristic offensive possession is long and drawn out and usually ends in a missed field goal attempt.
If there was one thing each team has in common in regards to tempo it's length of defensive possessions. Both have defenses that make the other team hold the ball for longer than the average 17.2 seconds. However, Northwestern's defensive possessions are also lasting almost 19 seconds, on average, against Big Ten teams. That's normally an indication that a team's defense does a great job of staying in front of their man and making their opponent work for good shots. But pairing that statistic with the awful eFG% their defense is allowing other teams to shoot this year seems to paint a picture of a defense that holds on for a while, but tends to have costly breakdowns late in the shot clock.
Northwestern runs a lot of 2-3 zone, and that would probably explain why it takes opponents a little longer than normal to dissect where to attack the defense. But what explains the breakdowns?
Well, looking at the types of shots Northwestern's defense is giving up this season, we get a clue as to what may be going wrong at the end of their defensive possessions. We can see that Northwestern's conference opponents have taken a ton of threes against them, which would make some sense since they use a lot of zone. Still, 43% is a lot of threes and isn't something that should be attributed solely to the fact that they play a lot of zone. Instead, that huge number of threes makes it seem like Northwestern's defense has some serious rotation/communication issues that are leading to a bunch of open threes against them.
I haven't watched much Northwestern basketball this season, so I did some research to see if I could figure out the story behind the numbers. I came across a nice breakdown of the complicated type of zone defense Northwestern uses from over at Inside NU. Northwestern used a lot of zone last season, but this season they have switched to a match up zone that is more complicated. The fact that this zone is relatively new for this team, and that they have a host of freshman and sophomores who are still learning to play with each other makes it understandable why there would be so many breakdowns. This defense has the ability to confound opposing offenses, but it also has the ability to confound the defense when they are still learning how to communicate and play together. And, right now, it looks like the latter is happening more often than the former.
To put this three-point issue into more context, Ohio State's 18 attempted three-pointers in one game is the only time a Big Ten opponent has not attempted at least 21 threes in a game against this Wildcat defense. Michigan State tried 26 a few nights ago, Indiana went with 28 a week ago, and Maryland threw up 31 in their first match up with this zone. Basically, I would expect Iowa to shoot at least 20 threes in this game, and I would also expect them to make a good number of them, too.
The fact that Northwestern's opponents are burying 39% of their shots from downtown against them is bad enough. But pair that with an offense that is making only 47% from inside the arc and 26% from outside of it, and disaster is almost inevitable.
Points-wise, I would expect Iowa to continue to get an above average chunk of value from the outside shot. For Northwestern, I would expect the same thing, but substitute the two-point shot for the three-point one.
Players to Watch
Note: A quick reminder on how this chart works. The horizontal axis represents a player's usage rate, while the vertical axis represents a player's offensive rating. The circle size represents playing time (bigger means more time on the court). This chart should tell us how involved in the offense the player is, how efficient they are in doing so, and in how many minutes per game do they accomplish all of this.
The offense starts with Bryant McIntosh at the point guard position. He's just a sophomore, but he's been running this Chris Collins offense since the day he stepped on campus last season. He leads the team in usage rate and in scoring with 15 points per game this season and 13 per game against Big Ten competition. Like the Hawkeyes saw with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon, Northwestern is going to run a lot of ball screens to get McIntosh and shooting guard Tre Demps some openings. McIntosh is a 37% three-point shooter, so he can use a ball screen to knock down a shot from long distance. But two-thirds of his shots come from two-point range where he shoots 46%, and that means he can use the screen to attack the basket for a layup or pull up for a mid-range jumper. But McIntosh isn't strictly a scoring point guard. He does have a knack for finding his teammates when they are in position to score (he's 9th in the nation in assist rate, 1st in the Big Ten). Depending on who is setting the screen, McIntosh is great at finding a big man rolling to the rim, or finding a three-point shooter popping out to the wing.
After McIntosh, Alex Olah is a pretty big part of this offense. His circle on the chart is much smaller than you would expect because his minutes have been limited lately as he's been coming back from a foot injury. He's played about 20 minutes per game in the last two games against Michigan State and Indiana, and I would expect him to play at least that much against Iowa. Olah (7'0" and 270 lbs.) is an absolute beast in the paint, and is a guy who is very skilled around the rim. When he's healthy and not setting ball screens for his two guards, a big part of this offense is to post him up and let him go to work. He is very good at finishing at the rim, and he's also above average when it comes to drawing fouls. He's never been an outstanding offensive rebounder, but he helps make up for that by being excellent on the defensive glass and by being a top 100 shot-blocker. Adam Woodbury should be able to help limit Olah's impact on this game, but the only concern could come if Olah's ability to draw contact sends Woody to the bench for long periods of time.
The next high-usage player on this team is two-guard Tre Demps. He's a guy that seems to be either on or off when it comes to shooting. There rarely seems to be an in between with him. Demps has a knack for forcing bad shots at inopportune times, and I think that shows with his 82 offensive rating in Big Ten play. Essentially, he's a high-volume offensive player that can be an All-Star against bad competition, but struggles when it comes to playing against good defenses. He's averaging almost 14 points per game this season, but that number has dropped a bit to 11 in conference play. And as evidence of his low-efficiency ways, it is taking him about 14.5 field goal attempts and almost two free throw attempts against Big Ten defenses to get his 11 points per game. From what I've seen of him over his career and this year, he does seem to be a pretty good defender. However, that's not enough to offset just how bad his offense has been in Big Ten play. If you check his conference win shares, his -0.3 offensive win shares cancel out his 0.1 defensive win shares, leaving him as an overall negative for his team right now. This has always been Demps' game and I doubt it will change now in his senior year. Of course, that's probably a good thing for Iowa.
Now, when Demps isn't blowing an offensive possession for the Wildcats, they actually have a couple of really good young players in Aaron Falzon and Derek Pardon. Both are freshman, and both are contributing some really good things for Northwestern against Big Ten competition. Falzon is essentially a 6'8" small forward playing the stretch four position for Northwestern. Almost 80% of his 162 field goal attempts this season have come from downtown, where he is making almost 37% of them. Those three-pointers are helping him score 10 points per game against Big Ten competition as a freshman. He usually gets his 6 three-point attempts per game via McIntosh driving and kicking to him on the perimeter, or by popping out behind the three-point line after he sets a ball screen for his point guard. Jarrod Uthoff will be tasked with guarding him, so let's hope he can log a few of his patented blocked jump shots against the freshman.
Pardon, meanwhile, comes off the bench for Olah and reminds me a bit of a young Reggie Evans, in that he is a little undersized (6'8"), but is still well-built (230 lbs.) Like Evans, he is outstanding when it comes to attacking the glass, which is demonstrated by the fact that he is the 9th best offensive rebounder in the conference and the 7th best defensive one. Additionally, he really knows how to clean up around the rim. He is scoring 10 points per game against Big Ten competition, and over half of his made baskets this season have come via putbacks off of offensive rebounds. And the final parallel to Evans is that Pardon draws a ton of fouls, but is only a 56% free throw shooter from the charity stripe. Chris Collins doesn't play him much at the four spot, so expect to see Adam Woodbury on him quite a bit.
After these guys, there are some role players to mention briefly.
Sanjay Lumpkin is the starting small forward for this Northwestern team, but he doesn't do much on offense, as you can tell from his circle on the chart. When he does shoot the ball, he does it pretty well. But, in general, he doesn't take a lot of shots. The main thing he provides is senior leadership and some rebounds.
Joey Van Zegeren is a transfer from Virginia Tech who gets 15 minutes per game at the five spot when Olah and Pardon aren't occupying it. He's a decent rebounder with a turnover problem, but he finishes well at the rim and benefits as the roll man when he sets screens for McIntosh.
Scottie Lindsey and Nathan Taphorn are small forwards who play 18 and 10 minutes per game. Their main value is to come off the bench and make some threes, as both take over half their shots from out there and both are making 38-39% of them. Of course, those totals have fallen to 30-32% in limited Big Ten attempts recently.
Finally, Gavin Skelly is a 6'8" reserve that provides rebounds at the four spot. He's shooting the ball well from the inside on his limited attempts this season. However, he has a big turnover issue, and that's a huge part of why his offensive rating is so low.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #2, Northwestern #97
Projected Outcome: Iowa 78 (93%), Northwestern 62 (7%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.20, Northwestern 0.95
Projected Possessions: 65
This is a game that Iowa should win, and they should probably win it pretty handily. On offense, expect the Hawkeyes to take and make a lot of threes. On defense, Adam Woodbury should help limit Olah and Pardon in the post, while Uthoff should hopefully be able to prevent Falzon from making a bunch of threes. Anthony Clemmons should also be able to make Tre Demps look like his usual high-volume, low-efficiency self.
My only potential concern is if Mike Gesell is still battling those leg injuries. Bryant McIntosh is a capable scorer and passer, and if he is able to penetrate the defense on a regular basis, that could open up things for him and others. If that happens, though, I would expect Iowa to switch to their own zone.
Overall, Iowa should have too much firepower on offense for Northwestern to keep up. Let's hope they take care of business and show no residual hangover from the Maryland game. If the Hawkeyes play like they are capable of, this should be the first win of a three-game streak that sees Iowa move to 10-1 in the conference.