Iowa (11-3) vs. Nebraska (8-7)
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Tickets: University of Iowa
TV/Streaming: Big Ten Network / BTN2Go
Line: Iowa -15.5
Fresh off of back-to-back wins over top 15 teams, Iowa welcomes Nebrasketball to Carver Hawkeye-Arena tonight. The Big Ten this season may not be as deep as it has been in recent years, but don't tell that to Iowa's January schedule. This game against the Cornhuskers is just one of two contests against Big Ten teams not inside the Kenpom top 60 this month. Nebraska is currently ranked 157th by Ken Pomeroy's formula, while the Hawkeyes' January 21st date with 248th-ranked Rutgers is the only other cupcake. Otherwise, Fran McCaffery's squad has to play #6 Michigan State (with Denzel Valentine potentially healthy), #24 Michigan, #15 Maryland, and #51 Northwestern all in the coming weeks. If we count back to December and include Iowa's first match up with Sparty, that means 7 of Iowa's first 9 Big Ten games have come against opponents with an average Kenpom rating of 17. And if we take out Northwestern, that number goes down to 11. This is not an easy road.
But it hasn't been an easy road so far. The Hawkeyes have started the journey by exceeding expectations, which is great. But the challenge against a Nebraska team that Iowa is expected to beat by double-digits at home, is to not overlook them or take them lightly. Yes, Nebraska is not as talented as Iowa, but they do have a few really good players who could potentially keep them in this game if things break right.
Let's look at the numbers.
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 109 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 9% better than the national average this year, while Nebraska's 104 means they have been 4% better at contesting opponent shots this season.
Over his first three seasons in Lincoln, Tim Miles has had some good defensive teams. They were 102nd in his first year on campus, which is above average, but they improved to finish the last two seasons at 25th in the country. This year, though, things aren't looking so rosy on the defensive end. On the season, they are 132nd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, and if we look at conference numbers so far, Nebraska's defense is dead-last in the Big Ten, giving up 1.22 adjusted points per possession. To be fair, they have played Northwestern (32nd best offense in the nation) and Indiana (the only thing they know how to do is play offense), so the conference numbers are very skewed. But they do not get a break tonight, because don't look now, but Iowa's offense is 13th in the nation and second in the conference through two games against two very good defensive teams.
When we look at the four factor match up, we can see that Nebraska's defense really only has the advantage in rebounding. The Husker D has contested shots at a 4% above average rate and forced turnovers at a 7% above average rate (thanks to a high number of steals), but Iowa's 9% better than the norm in making baskets and 20% better at not giving the ball up. Both teams are bad when it comes to the free throw battle on this end of the court, though. Iowa's offense doesn't get to the line much and Nebraska's defense can't seem to keep teams off it. This could be a disadvantage for Nebraska, however, since when Iowa does get to the line, they are generally a good shooting team.
But if we look back at how Nebraska's defense has looked against the other two good Big Ten offenses they have faced this season, we see they have given up a collective 61% eFG% (Division I average is 49.5%), forced turnovers on 16% of possessions (Division I average is 18.6%), allowed opponents to grab about 32.8% of their misses (Division I average is 30.3%), and allowed a free throw rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) of 36.7% (Division I average is 36.5%). Those are not good numbers. And if the Huskers couldn't stop Northwestern or Indiana's offenses, then they shouldn't be able to stop Iowa's, either.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
On offense, Nebraska really struggles outside of the play of Shavon Shields and Andrew White III. They are pretty average when it comes to shooting, but they do earn themselves plenty of second chance opportunities and help compliment their shooting with an ability to draw fouls. The big problem, however, is turnovers. That should be good news for an Iowa team that is 6% above average at creating turnovers, and is currently first in Big Ten play in steal rate and second in forcing turnovers.
Iowa has been strong in all defensive categories this season, except for defensive rebounding. Opponents have hauled in offensive boards at a high rate this season, and that trend has continued through two Big Ten games so far, where Iowa is currently last in the conference in defensive rebounding. Nebraska's offense should have an advantage in the rebounding category, but it shouldn't be enough to cancel out the other three factors that should go Iowa's way.
Style of Play
Tempo-wise, both teams play at a similar pace. Nebraska is a little slower, averaging 69 possessions per game, while Iowa is at 70. The main difference comes on offense, where Iowa's possessions last an average of 16.1 seconds, while Nebraska's are 0.6 seconds longer. On defense, both teams are forcing opponents to hold the ball 17.7 seconds on every possession, which is longer than the Division I norm of 17.1 seconds.
When it comes to shooting, Iowa has the advantage at both making and contesting shots.
The Huskers actually shoot the three ball well, but they shoot them at about a 2 percentage point lower rate than the Division I norm. The bad part about that for Nebraska (good for Iowa, though), is that they are only an average shooting team from inside the arc, where they take most of their shots. Part of that stems from the fact that they aren't very good at avoiding blocked shots, which is also good news for an Iowa team that is 5th in the country in block rate and 1st in Big Ten play.
As for scoring tendencies, Iowa relies heavily on the three-point shot to make up for the fact that they don't get to the free throw line often. Nebraska uses the free throw line, on the other hand, to make up for the fact that they don't shoot three-pointers as much as the average Division I team.
Players to Watch
Note: A quick reminder on how this chart works. The horizontal axis represents a player's usage rage, 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, and in how many minutes per game do they accomplish all of this.
Similar to the last few years, Nebraska's offense is pretty much a two-man show. This year, instead of Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields running it, it's now Andrew White III and Shavon Shields. Let's start with Shields since he is the known commodity.
Shields is a 6'7", 225 lb. senior forward who is scoring 15.5 points per game this season. He uses the most possessions on the team and is currently 106th in the nation this season in that category, which means he is always involved on offense. He's not a great three-point shooter, but he will attempt them occasionally. Instead, he takes 82% of his field goal tries from inside the arc. He's a very physical player, who likes to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. We've seen him do it against Iowa with success in the past.
He also draws fouls at a decent clip, is the second best assist man on the team, and is a good defender. I expect him to be the lucky one who gets to guard Jarrod Uthoff.
Now, while Shields is the veteran leader of this Nebraska team, Andrew White III is their best offensive player. The junior transfer from Kansas is putting up 17 points per game for Nebraska, and doing so while playing fewer minutes per game and using fewer possessions than Shavon Shields. You can see on the chart that White is super efficient with the ball, and he's efficient from anywhere on the court. He has a slight preference of shooting from downtown (54% of the time), where he's making almost 44% of his tries this season. But he can also shoot from inside the arc, where he is connecting on just about 60% of his attempts this year. At 6'7" and 216 lbs. White is also the best defensive rebounder on the team. I would expect him to draw the match up with Peter Jok tonight.
After those two guys, Nebraska's offense takes a serious nosedive.
Tai Webster is a 6'4" guard who is scoring 8.9 points per game and doing so mainly by attacking the basket. He's shooting 51% from two-point range, and is making 36% of his threes this year. However, he takes about 76% of his field goal attempts from inside the three-point line. Webster also gives back a lot of the value he adds with his shooting by turning the ball over at a high clip. On defense, he is a pretty good defensive rebounder for a guard, and he's also pretty good at forcing turnovers via the steal.
Then there is Glynn Watson Jr., a former four star recruit who is scoring 7.1 points off the bench as a freshman for Nebraska. The 6 foot tall point guard has the highest assist rate on the team and an incredibly low turnover rate for a first year guy. But, to put it mildly, his scoring is less than efficient. He has a 38.5% eFG% this season, which means he's scoring 7 points per game, but he's taking 7 field goals a game to do so. Over two-thirds of his shots come from two-point range, where he's shooting only 35% on the year, and he's also only shooting 31% from deep. On defense, though, he's another Nebraska guy who is pretty good at taking the ball from the other team.
Nebraska's other main guy off the bench is freshman power forward, Jack McVeigh. The 6'8", 210 lb. Aussie is a stretch four that loves to shoot the three, and is averaging 5.4 points per game doing so. Approximately 2 of every 3 field goals he shoots come from deep, and he's making 39% of them on the year. He's also only making 39% of his two-point tries this year... Outside of his ability to enter the game and hit a few threes for Nebraska, he is a meh defensive rebounder. He will likely get a crack at guarding Uthoff a few times throughout this game.
Lastly, we should mention Nebraska's final two starters. Benny Parker is a senior point guard, who isn't really very involved in the offense. He's scoring 5 points per game in 26 minutes on the court. He is a small, speedy guy that takes over half of his attempts from downtown, where he's making almost 36% of them on the season. Outside of that, he doesn't do much else. He's got a really low assist rate and a high turnover rate, which is a bad combination for a senior point guard.
Finally, you will notice that I haven't talked about a starting center for Nebraska. Well, that's because there isn't really one worth mentioning. The Huskers have a rotation at the five spot this season. The 6'8", 222 lb. Michael Jacobson is the starter, but he plays only 14 minutes per game and does not use many possessions on offense. When he does get involved on offense, he's shown the ability to shoot the ball pretty well from inside and earn his way to the free throw line. After him, Nebraska will use the 6'10" Jake Hammond and the 6'7" Ed Morrow for 13 minutes a piece. Hammond is the best rebounder on the team, but he's not shooting from inside very well this season. Meanwhile, Morrow is a former four star recruit that Fran offered a scholarship in last year's recruiting class. He's actually shooting and rebounding the ball really well as a freshman this year, but has a major turnover problem that has his offensive efficiency way under 100. He's also averaging 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes, which is a less than ideal rate. But he's not the only one who has a fouling problem. Jacobson and Hammond both also average more than 5 fouls per 40 minutes. That means Uthoff and Woodbury could visit the line quite a bit more than usual Tuesday night.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #11, Nebraska #157
Projected Outcome: Iowa 82 (95%), Nebraska 64 (5%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.19, Nebraska 0.93
Projected Possessions: 69
This one doesn't require much of an explanation. Nebraska has Andrew White III and Shavon Shields and that's really it. They have a couple promising four star youngsters in Watson Jr. and Morrow, and they have a nice looking player in Jack McVeigh. But the young talent is in need of development, which is no good for winning games this season.
If Iowa has any chance at losing this game, it would likely be a combination of a ridiculously cold night from the field for the entire team and/or a ton of turnovers on offense. Meanwhile, Andrew White III bombs away at Iowa from deep and Shavon Shields tears the Hawkeyes up inside on defense. But the odds of all of those things happening tonight aren't very good.
Nebraska hasn't fared well against two good Big Ten offenses so far this season, and Iowa has one of the best offenses in the nation. The Huskers shouldn't have an answer for Jarrod Uthoff (no team really does), and Peter Jok will get his shots up no matter who is defending him. But look for Adam Woodbury to potentially have a nice offensive night, as Nebraska has only one guy on the roster that is 6'10" and nobody else taller than 6'8". Iowa's seven footer should be able to get his shot off with relative ease against this Husker front line.
The Hawks should take this one tonight, and head to East Lansing next week 3-0 in Big Ten play.