Iowa (20-6) vs. Wisconsin (17-10)
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Tickets: University of Iowa
TV/Streaming: Big Ten Network/BTN2Go
Line: Iowa -7
As I'm sure you are all aware, this isn't your normal Wisconsin team. This year's roster is missing three starters from last year's team, two of whom are now playing in the NBA. And thanks to some misses in recruiting and some failures in retention (*cough* Jarrod Uthoff *cough*), 2015-2016 is a developmental year for the Badgers. This season is primarily for the young guys to learn how to fill in the holes left by last season's departures. And after a very slow start to the season, those young guys are really starting to develop.
Guys like Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown are giving Wisconsin additional options to go alongside an offense that otherwise relies solely on Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. This still isn't a Top 25 team, to be sure. But they probably aren't that far off, either. Because while Iowa has been trending down over the past couple of games, Wisconsin has been trending in the opposite direction.
That's not to say that Iowa can't win this basketball game because they can and they should. But they should have beat Penn State too, and that didn't go so well. This isn't meant to be negative, but it's simply a reminder that anything can happen in one game of basketball and nothing in the next couple of weeks should come easy. And that starts with tonight against the Badgers.
Let's preview the game.
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 104 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 4% better than the national average during Big Ten play, while Wisconsin's 101 means they have been 1% better at contesting opponent shots.
Just by looking at the chart, you should be able to tell that this should be a good match up. Iowa may have an advantage in the shooting, turnover, and offensive rebounding categories, but Wisconsin is above or right around average in all of those areas, while having an advantage when it comes to not putting their opponents on the line.
The biggest oddity, though, is Wisconsin's forced turnover percentage this season. The Badgers have never been known as a team that forces a ton of turnovers. Under Bo Ryan, they hadn't finished higher than 279th in the country over the last five years, and they hadn't come anywhere close to cracking the top 100 in that category since 2007. Their defense has been predicated on not gambling, staying in front of their man, and forcing the opposing team to hold the ball forever until they had to force a contested shot at the end of the shot clock. I'm not sure if this a change in philosophy that Greg Gard holds different from his predecessor or just something this current roster of players is good at, but this team has a real knack for stealing the ball from their foes.
Iowa, of course, has been very good at taking care of the ball this season. Their turnover rate has gone up a few percentage points in the last seven games, but it's still way below average. So hopefully that won't be an issue tonight.
In the shooting department, Wisconsin doesn't block a ton of shots, but they have done an outstanding job of contesting two-pointers this season. Iowa, on the other hand, is actually below the Division I norm at finishing their two-pointers in conference play, and that has not gotten any better as the schedule has lightened up. Instead, the Hawkeyes one big advantage seems to be that Wisconsin's conference opponents are shooting an incredible 40% from long range against them this year. Iowa's three-point shooting has cooled down to 33% in the last seven games, as opposed to the 43% they shot in the first seven Big Ten games. But hopefully they can find a nice middle (or better) tonight, as Wisconsin's defense looks tough inside the arc.
Of course, one potential issue about the long range shot is that Wisconsin's defense is suppressing it at a ridiculous rate this season, which means Iowa may not get many open looks from outside. But if Iowa can use their offensive rebounding (and height) to their advantage, they may be able to make up for some of those misses on second chance baskets.
Overall, when you adjust for the schedule that they have faced, the Badgers are giving up just 0.93 points per possession (PPP) in conference play. Iowa's offense, though, is averaging 1.22 PPP when you adjust for their schedule. Wisconsin's defense did struggle against similarly strong offenses in Michigan State and Indiana on the road, but they did hold Maryland under a point per trip in College Park. Iowa, though, has been held only a point per possession one time in conference play, and under 1.05 one other time. Thus, I think Iowa should be fine on this end of the court.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
On this side of the ball, we get both team's relative weaknesses (if they can be called that). Wisconsin's offense is particularly intriguing to me this season because only 48% of their field goals have been assisted this season, which is good for just 267th in the country. Last year's team wasn't much better at 248th in the country, but that team had Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. This year's team has Bronson Koenig playing 34 minutes per game at point guard, which works, but he's not a huge threat to penetrate the defense and kick the ball out. Instead, this Wisconsin team and their swing offense rely mainly on off-the-ball cuts and quick ball movement in order to get open shots. (Although, they also do a little bit of screening the ball.) When the ball reverses sides and they force the defense to rotate, the offense really works.
When the ball movement isn't there, then there are a lot of one-on-one situations that can end in contested jump shots.
The former has been more common over their recent hot streak, as the once struggling offense is now averaging 1.15 adjusted PPP against their Big Ten schedule.
Wisconsin has been a little below average in making their two-pointers in conference play, and part of that has been due to them getting a decent amount of them blocked. That should hopefully be a good sign for the Hawkeyes, who are well above the norm when it comes to rejecting opponent shots. Wisconsin is making 37% of their threes from long distance against Big Ten defenses, though, and any lineup they put on the floor will have four or five guys who can play outside the perimeter and splash it from deep. This may be a game in which Adam Woodbury is better off staying in the middle of the zone, rather than getting stuck in one-on-one situations with the smaller Ethan Happ on the outside. If Wisconsin tries to draw Woodbury away from the rim, expect Iowa to go with the zone or to use Dom Uhl and Ahmad Wagner in man-to-man.
When it comes to rebounding, neither team is particularly great on this end. Iowa has shown the ability to keep teams off the offensive glass, the only issue is that they usually only manage to do so for all of one half of basketball. Wisconsin isn't great on the offensive glass, though, either. If Iowa can limit the second chance opportunities for Wisconsin, in addition to contesting their shots, that would go a long way toward moving Iowa to victory. But if Iowa doesn't box out, Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown, and others could kill them on the offensive glass. Just ask Maryland.
Then there are turnovers and free throws. Iowa has been decent at forcing turnovers this season, but they have gone from forcing them on 20% of their opponents' possessions over the first seven Big Ten games to just 16.7% over the last seven. For some context, that means Iowa has dropped from an above average team in that category over the first seven Big Ten games to a below average one since their last game against Purdue. It would be nice to get some against Wisconsin, but that isn't likely. Wisconsin rarely gives up the basketball.
As for free throws, Iowa doesn't hand out fouls much, but Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes are both very adept at drawing contact. Thus, Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff will need to play smart to avoid foul trouble. Uthoff rarely gets into foul trouble, but Woodbury can still struggle with that sometimes.
Overall, this side of the ball depends on which Iowa defense shows up. If the defense from the first eleven or so Big Ten games graces us with its presence, Iowa could roll this Wisconsin team. But if Iowa's rotations are sloppy like they have been lately and they constantly overpursue and find themselves out of position, the Badgers could kill them from long range. I'm not quite sure what to expect here. I want to favor Iowa, but with the recent defensive performances, I will call this a draw.
Style of Play
Wisconsin is the slowest Big Ten team Iowa has seen to date. The Badgers are averaging a whopping 63 possessions per game in Big Ten action, which is almost 6 fewer per game than what Iowa is averaging against conference foes. This team isn't nearly as slow as the Wisconsin squad that ground opponents down for 58 possessions per conference game last season, but this season's iteration still doesn't play at a high tempo.
Most of that comes from the fact that their average time of possession on offense is right around 21 seconds long in Big Ten play. That works fine when the ball is going through the hoop. But, again, when the ball movement is stagnant, this becomes an issue when guys have to throw up contested shots near the end of the shot clock.
That being said, Iowa cannot let Wisconsin completely control the tempo of this game. They want to be sure to take good shots, but quick points could be important to them for this game. Wisconsin's strength is their defense, which means the Hawkeyes should push the tempo and try to get good looks before the defense gets set. Michigan State had some success with this, and this is something that is right up Iowa's alley.
When it comes to shooting, neither team is particularly potent from inside the two-point line, and both teams defend that shot very well. The difference comes on three-pointers, where Iowa's opponents have not made them consistently all year long, and Wisconsin's... well, have.
Those above numbers are made even more interesting by the fact that neither team is particularly three-point happy. This is more shocking for Wisconsin, seeing how they are usually near the top of the country in three-point attempts, but even Iowa's gradual movement back toward the two-point ways of previous years is something to continue watching.
And if we look at the defense, it's interesting to note that Iowa's opponents take a lot of threes, but don't connect very often. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's opponents connect quite often, but the Badger defense has been able to limit that damage by suppressing the amount of threes taken against them. Of course, they would almost have to in order to win eight of their last nine while allowing opponents to shoot 40% from the outside.
Finally, points. We see that both teams are very similar in offensive and defensive point distribution. The offenses get to the same result in similar manners, while the defenses get there via two radically different ways of three-point suppression.
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.
As most of you know, the offense starts with Nigel Hayes. The junior is having a tough time replicating his insane 7.1 win shares as a sophomore last season, but that's not exactly surprising since this Wisconsin team has very little depth and they no longer have Kaminsky and Dekker to take some of the heat off of him.
Hayes is still having a great season, scoring 17 points per game in conference play for the Badgers. But he's doing it while pulling a heavy work load of 36 minutes per game, while being responsible for almost 13 field goal and 8 free throw attempts on a nightly basis. He can play inside or outside at the forward position, but seems to be playing away from the basket more often this season and that appears to be hurting his efficiency. His eFG% is down from 56% last season to just 43% this season in Big Ten play, and that's largely because 70% of his shots are jump shots of one form or another. And on those shots, he's only making 31% of his threes and 34% of his long twos. If Iowa can keep him from posting up down low (also keeping him from getting to the foul line, by extension) and can contest his jumpers, they should be able to make him work for his points.
Outside of his scoring abilities, though, Hayes is also the best assist man on the roster. With no real point guard, he has to create shots for others on top of doing so for himself. He is also a very tough defender, who rarely gets called for a foul. I would expect to see him guarding Jarrod Uthoff quite a bit in this one.
After Hayes, Bronson Koenig is the only other guy who played more than 8 minutes per game before this year. At 34 minutes this season, Koenig is the de facto point guard on this team even though he is more of a traditional shooting guard. He's about as good an assist man as Nigel Hayes, which is more of a compliment to Hayes as a power forward than it is to Koenig as a guard. Of course, Koenig can really shoot the ball from deep, and that's where he gets most of his value. His 41% from long range against Big Ten defenses looks great, especially when you consider that 56% of his shots come from out there. However, once he steps inside that three-point line, that's when he becomes inefficient. Koenig isn't much of a threat to blow by his man on the way to the rim, so he's more likely to pull up for the mid-range jumper when he does put the ball on the floor. He's shooting a pretty good 35% on those two-point jumpers this season. But since those are a third of his shots and they are only worth two points, you can see why it's taking him 10 field goal attempts and 3 free throw attempts per game to get his 12.5 points.
On the youth front, Ethan Happ has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the Badgers this season. I don't know that it's surprising that Happ is developing into such a good player in Wisconsin's system, but it is surprising that he is doing it as only a redshirt freshman. Despite not playing in a college basketball game until this season, the 6'9" former 3 star recruit is giving Wisconsin almost 13 points and 28 minutes per game at the center position in conference play this season. The interesting thing about him is that he one of the few players on this roster who has not attempted a three-pointer this season. The main knock on Happ's offensive game is that he lacks a jump shot. That being said, he is not afraid to catch the ball away from the basket and take a bigger defender off the dribble. So if Adam Woodbury finds himself in a one-on-one situation with Happ away from the rim, he would be best to give him space and make sure he can't attack the rim. Iowa can live with an Ethan Happ jump shot.
Anyway, as you may have gathered from the above paragraph, Ethan Happ is at his best in the post. He already demonstrates great footwork for a young player, and has a real knack for working down low and finishing at the rim.
Happ takes almost 90% of his field goal attempts right by the basket, which explains his 52% eFG% and his knack for drawing fouls. His 64% shooting from the free throw line could stand to improve, though.
In addition to his scoring, he is not only the best offensive rebounder on the team, but he is currently leading the Big Ten in steal rate and is third in defensive rebounding. In other words, prepare yourselves to be annoyed for years to come.
Next is Vitto Brown, who has also taken a pretty sizable step forward in his junior season. After playing an extremely limited role last season, Brown is now starting at one of the forward spots and scoring 8 points per game on about 6 field goal and 2 free throw attempts per game. While not being quite as talented as Nigel Hayes, Brown's stature and game are pretty similar. Both are 6'8", 230-240 lb. forwards who can play all over the court. Both also take quite a few shots away from the rim, but Brown is connecting on a higher percentage of his (fewer) attempts in Big Ten play. Other than his scoring ability, though, he doesn't do much else besides grab the occasional offensive rebound. Brown, Hayes, and Happ being on the court together at times makes me wonder how Wisconsin will decide to cover Peter Jok. The Badgers aren't a zone team, and if Happ is on Woodbury that likely leaves the 6'8" forward not guarding Uthoff as the winner of the Peter Jok lottery. Both Brown and Hayes are athletic, but are they athletic enough to cover Jok on the wing? Of course, on the flip side, will Jok be able to guard them when Iowa isn't in zone?
Rounding out the starting lineup, Zak Showalter is a junior shooting guard who came to Wisconsin without a scholarship. That hasn't stopped him from putting up a 65% eFG% in Big Ten play this season by making 69% of his twos and 41% of this threes. He's good for the occasional assist, but really, he gets his 8 points per game as a catch and shoot specialist. He's not a huge part of the offense, but he's not a guy Iowa can afford to leave open, either.
Finally, the Badgers have a bench that is about three, maybe, four players deep. Jordan Hill plays 20 minutes per game, spelling Koenig and Showalter and providing Wisconsin with a few points mainly by hitting the occasional three. Alex Illikainen is your standard stretch forward that Wisconsin seems to grow on trees nowadays. He's a true freshman that plays about 16 minutes every game and can shoot from anywhere on the floor. Khalil Iverson is a 6'5" freshman forward whose game is currently more about scoring at the rim than anywhere else on the court. He's playing a little under 11 minutes per game this season. And, lastly, Charlie Thomas is a 6'8" 253 lb. freshman big man who plays only 7 minutes a night when he does see the court. Knowing how Wisconsin develops their players, he will probably be really good in a few years. But, right now, he's not much more than filler for when Wisconsin may be in foul trouble or needs to give guys a quick breather.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #9, Wisconsin #38
Projected Outcome: Iowa 73 (81%), Wisconsin 65 (19%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.12, Wisconsin 1.00
Projected Possessions: 65
In total, this should be a game Iowa wins. Wisconsin looks vastly improved from when they lost to Western Illinois earlier this season, but they still have some deficiencies. Iowa has the talent and experience advantage, and that should hopefully be enough to carry them to a win.
Iowa's offensive output is usually fine, so the key to this game probably lies on defense. If the Hawkeyes can limit the Badgers' open looks from long range and make Nigel Hayes work for his points, they have a good shot at winning this game by double-digits. But if Wisconsin gets a ton of open looks from three, and Hayes and Happ are able to have success in the paint, this game could end up being uncomfortably close or another disappointing loss.
Let's hope they can right the ship. Hopefully the upperclassmen learned something from the way the 2013-2014 season ended.