Iowa (19-5) vs. Minnesota (6-18)
Time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV/Streaming: Big Ten Network/BTN2Go
Line: Iowa -20.5
After a one game interlude against a team at the top of the conference, Iowa continues their tour of the bottom of the Big Ten. Next up: Minnesota.
The Gophers are not very good at basketball. They are 0-12 in Big Ten play, and rank as the worst Minnesota team of the Kenpom era. The only reason Richard Pitino isn't on the hot seat -- besides Minnesota not having an AD right now -- is because this roster is going to look extremely different next year. They have two key transfers sitting out this season due to NCAA rules, and a pretty nice recruiting class coming in. The future definitely looks a little brighter for Minnesota, but we are in the present, and this current roster is awful. There is some young talent, but there isn't nearly enough well-rounded upperclassmen to make this team competitive with most Big Ten teams.
In other words, Minnesota is a mess and Iowa should win by double-digits. Let's get into the preview.
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 105 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 5% better than the national average during Big Ten play, while Minnesota's 91 means they have been 9% worse at contesting opponent shots.
Iowa's offense is #2 in the conference in terms of points per possession (PPP), but when you adjust it for the level of competition they have played, it's actually #1. Outside of the game at Maryland, this team has consistently scored points in bunches, and that is something Iowa has in common with Minnesota's opponents this season. Because, while Iowa is averaging 1.15 PPP against conference foes this season, Minnesota is allowing an almost equal 1.13 PPP.
Part of the problem is that Pitino coaches a very aggressive style of defense that allows the other team to score easily when the Gophers aren't disciplined and they try to jump the passing lanes. The Gophers aren't afraid to throw a full-court press at you, either, but oftentimes that leads to more layups and open shots for the other team than it does steals for them.
There isn't much that needs explaining here. Iowa simply has a huge talent edge.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Unfortunately, for Minnesota, it doesn't get much better on this end of the court.
The Gophers are horrible at putting the ball through the net no matter where they are on the court. They are below average when it comes to shooting two-pointers (48.1%) and even more so when it comes to shooting three-pointers (27.9%). Part of that is because they are getting a decent chunk of their attempts blocked this year, but a lot of it is just because they don't have many great shooters.
They do take care of the ball really well, but that doesn't matter a whole lot since they can't shoot, can't rebound their misses, and don't visit the foul line that often. Iowa's biggest weakness is on the defensive glass, and Minnesota doesn't even appear capable of exploiting that.
Style of Play
Looking at tempo, Minnesota's 69.2 possessions per game on the season is right on the Division I average. Of course, the Big Ten is a slower conference, so that has dropped to 67.4 in conference play. Either way, they are slower than Iowa, who is at about 70 possessions per game for the year and 69 versus Big Ten teams.
The interesting thing about the tempo stats here comes on defense. We all know that Iowa has the shortest offensive possessions in the conference, but what's a bit surprising is that Minnesota's defense is forcing opposing teams to hold the ball as long as Iowa's is (18 seconds, on average). The difference, of course, is that Iowa's defense usually stops the opposing team from scoring the basketball, while Minnesota's usually ends with the opponent putting points on the scoreboard. Normally, I would say you want your defense to force the opponent into long possessions because that means the initial actions they are running aren't producing good looks at the basket. Minnesota appears to be the exception to that rule.
Shooting-wise, Iowa has the advantage on both ends of the court, as was already shown in the four factor charts. And, with the way Big Ten teams are scoring on Minnesota from inside, I would expect Iowa's two-point field goal percentage to go up after this game.
As for the types of shots each team attempts, both teams favor the two-point shot more than normal. In Minnesota's case, though, that's probably because most of their guys can't shoot from the outside. On the other end, both teams have seen opponents shoot more threes than usual against their defense. Despite Kenpom showing that defensive three-point field goal percentage is largely based on luck over the course of a season, Iowa's opponents have consistently shot the ball worse than average from downtown, while Minnesota's opponents have shot right around the average.
When we look at scoring, Iowa's percentage of points from three-point shots is moving closer to the average as their free throw rate goes up in Big Ten play. Minnesota, meanwhile, is so bad from long range that a way above average number of their points come from inside and at the free throw line. That will probably continue against Iowa, as the Hawkeyes haven't allowed opposing teams to burn them from outside much this season.
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 they accomplish all of this.
Minnesota's offense relies heavily on Nate Mason making plays for himself and others. At almost 33 minutes per game, the starting point guard is giving the Gophers almost 15 points per game against Big Ten competition, and is currently #3 in the conference in assist rate. Almost two-thirds of his shots come from inside the arc, but he's not afraid to launch a three from downtown. He likes to take his defender off the dribble and get to the rim, but he's always struggled to finish in traffic amongst taller defenders, and this year is no exception. However, last year he was able to make up for that by draining 37% of his tries from three-point range. This year that has fallen to 31% in both conference and non-conference play. Even with his shooting struggles, though, odds are that he is going to score double-digit points for Minnesota in this one. Iowa just needs to make sure it takes him the usual 14 field goal and 4 free throw attempts to do so.
After Mason, freshman forward Jordan Murphy has been a bright spot for this Minnesota team this season. He's scoring 11 points per game in the conference in his first year on campus, and he's been very efficient doing so. At 6'6" it's been extremely impressive to watch him go to work in the post against taller defenders. Not only has his efficiency been consistent all year long, but so has his rebounding and and shot-blocking abilities. Murphy is 134th in the country in offensive rebounding and 17th in the conference. And he's even better on the other end of the court, where he's 63rd nationally and #8 in the Big Ten. He's also 233rd overall and #8 in the Big Ten in blocked shots. His only real drawback in the 26 minutes per game he plays is that he can sometimes get into foul trouble. I will be interested to see how he does against Iowa's length in this one.
Minnesota's third and fourth options are Carlos Morris and Joey King. Morris is an inefficient small forward/shooting guard combo who lost his starting spot in early January. He's still giving Minnesota 9 points every night in conference play, though. Of course, it's taking him almost 8 field goal and 3 free throw attempts to do so. He's not afraid to shoot from outside, but that's where he's least dangerous. If Iowa can keep him from getting to the rim, chances are good that he will struggle to score many points.
King, meanwhile, is an all offense and no defense 6'9" power forward who thrives when he gets to shoot from the perimeter. He's Minnesota's only real three-point threat, as he's connecting on 43% of his outside attempts on the season and 41% in conference play. He's not much of a threat inside, though, as only a third of his attempts come from closer up and he's only shooting 35% on them vs. Big Ten defenses. And, speaking of defense, the former Drake Bulldog is one of the worst defenders on this Minnesota team, which probably explains why he isn't starting, even with how valuable he can be on offense. Only 0.3 of his 2.2 win shares this season have come on the defensive end of the floor, and exactly 0 of them have come in Big Ten play. Additionally, if you look at his defensive rating on that very same page, he has one of the worst defensive ratings on the roster. He has the ability to give Minnesota points on offense, but he also tends give away quite a few on defense. And that should be case tonight if Pitino tries to have him defend Jarrod Uthoff.
After those four guys, Minnesota has no real depth.
Dupree McBrayer and Kevin Dorsey are both freshman guards. McBrayer starts at the two and plays point when Mason is on the bench for seven minutes per game, and Dorsey plays the two when McBrayer is on the bench or at point. Both are awful shooters early on in their career, but McBrayer limits his damage a bit because he doesn't shoot the ball nearly as much as Dorsey does when he's in the game. McBrayer is a willing passer, however, and he has been good at finding open teammates this season.
Then there's Charles Buggs, who may be 6'9", but he really enjoys shooting from the outside. He's not really active on offense, though. And despite the threes he hit against Iowa a few years ago, he is not a good shooter. He's been a starter lately, but most Gopher fans don't see him playing a big part on next year's team. That should tell you all you need to know about Minnesota basketball this year.
On the inside, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhou round out Minnesota in the post. Konate is 6'11" and starts at the five spot. His offensive game is raw, but he is shooting the ball well on limited attempts this season. His main value comes from defensive rebounding and blocking shots. Diedhou is also sophomore post player who is athletic and raw, but isn't as far along as Konate. He plays far fewer minutes per game, and he's not even guaranteed to see the court in this one.
Finally, Ahmad Gilbert is a small forward who has been fighting injury lately. He's not a big part of the offense and he doesn't shoot well, but he's a pretty decent defensive rebounder when healthy. I'm not sure how much he will play tonight.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #3, Minnesota #195
Projected Outcome: Iowa 86 (97%), Minnesota 63 (3%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.25, Minnesota 0.91
Projected Possessions: 69
Anything can happen in one game of basketball, but the odds of Iowa losing this game should be very low. Minnesota is terrible on both ends of the court, and Iowa is the polar opposite. This should be another double-digit win for the Hawkeyes, who are now in only a two-way tie for first place in the conference, thanks to Wisconsin beating Maryland last night.
With a third Terrapins loss and Indiana having the most difficult remaining schedule out of the three big contenders, Iowa looks to be in excellent shape.
Iowa's road to a Big Ten Title isn't necessarily easy -- five of their last six games are against what Kenpom currently labels Tier A (Kenpom Top 50) or Tier B teams (Top 100). But Maryland's third loss and Indiana's future schedule gives Iowa some room for error.
There should be no error tonight, though. Iowa should beat Minnesota handily, and remain in first place. And if Michigan State can beat Indiana today, the Hawkeyes will be all alone at the top.