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The Nittany Lions head to Carver-Hawkeye Arena

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

In Iowa’s second game against a team from Applachia this week, the Penn State Nittany Lions (6-2) come to Iowa City for the first Big Ten conference game of the season.

This time last year, the Hawkeyes were 3-3 and dropped the next two before coming out with fire and fury to close the non-conference season. Delany had other ideas and decided to play the conference tourney at Madison Square Garden so here we are, with an adjusted schedule so the Big East could keep their tradition alive. To close this loop, it’s probably the only time the Big Ten Conference has ceded ground in the conference thunderdome.

Penn State lost their game against North Carolina State in the bloodbath which was the Big Ten/ACC Challenge where the ACC won 11 games to the Big Ten’s 3. Ouch. Needless to say, maybe the Big Ten isn’t as good as we thought it was.

This is about as long of an intro as I’ve written in my previews because, frankly, my patience is wearing a little thin with this Hawkeye bunch. On The Pants Party, I said I’d lean into my optimism and predicted an Iowa win here and against a (not-so-)moribund Indiana team but I just don’t like how this game sets up. Consider:

  • Tony Carr, Penn State’s star point guard, leads Big Ten guards in scoring at 21.3 points per game. He is also in the top ten in the conference in assists and steals (where teammate Josh Reaves leads the conference) while maintaining the second highest usage percentage. We’re going to see a lot of him and there hasn’t been a player on Iowa’s roster who has shown they can shut down opposing point guards.
    (Here’s where an Iowa fan might mention how Christian Williams’ presence would improve the outlook of this game, to which I’d say, “He had hip surgery within the last couple weeks so there’s no guarantee he’d even be playing if he were on the roster.”)
  • Penn State’s defense is far and away the best Iowa has played to date. They currently rate in the top 25, according to KenPom in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. In the four factors, they are turning teams over nearly 25% of the time (24.6%, good for 16th in the country) and doing a good job of forcing tough shots (47.4% eFG%) and then locking down the boards (72.2% dRB%). Many of these are live-ball plays, as they rank 4th and 27th in steal percentage and block percentage, respectively.
  • Carr is joined by a bevy of guard-like players (Shep Garner and the aforementioned Reaves are the other likely starters) who can give Iowa fits much like past opponents’ smaller players. They’re joined in the starting lineup with bouncy sophomores Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves who both rate highly in blocks.

So, what are the reasons for optimism?

  • First and foremost, this is a young team. They might seem old since we know most of them from last year but, believe it or not, they are only marginally older. Given the roster churn (no Peter Jok, injured Nicholas Baer, nailed-to-the-bench Dom Uhl), Iowa is calculated to have a weighted-average experience .91 years, according to KenPom. Last year, they were .90 years old. The only Power 5 teams younger are those relying on likely one-and-done players: Kentucky, Duke, and Alabama. Wisconsin is similarly inexperienced and currently sits at 3-4 (different competition. It’s gonna be bumpy. I expect it all to click at some point. What better time than now, with their backs kinda sorta against the wall?
  • Looking at stats (because that first reason is just a gut feeling so your mileage may vary), Penn State is susceptible in a couple of categories: 3 point shooting and fouls. They’ve allowed 39% shooting on threes and put teams on the line over 19 times per game. With an inside-out approach, Iowa should be able to get to the line by forcing the Nittany Lions to defend Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl, and Luka Garza, among others. In turn, it should collapse the defense and spring Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss for open threes. If they can manage turnovers, they should be able to score.

It’s been a weird year so far but I still remain optimistic about this group. This will be another step up, but with the challenges they’ve already faced and the noise already around this young season, I think they’ll be ready for it. Playing this game at Carver will also prove to be useful, mainly because it isn’t in the Bryce Jordan Center where Iowa typically underperforms.

Here’s hoping the Hawks can turn the tide.