In a matchup of unique bird-adjacent mascots, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds (6-4) visit the Iowa Hawkeyes (6-6) tonight. The T-birds are in the same phylum as many Iowa opponents so far with their smallish lineups (they’ll regularly play 6’4” Jadon Cohee at PF and 6’6” Jamal Aytes at PF/C) and perimeter-oriented, ball control offense.
They’re amongst the best teams in the nation, according to KenPom, at maintaining possession of the basketball. Their 14.1% turnover percentage ranks 6th as of this writing. Cohee is leading the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game and is on the floor 35.5 minutes per game. He won’t shoot the three a ton and is more of a slasher, as he averages 6 free throw attempts per game with 78.3% shooting from the line and only 30.6% from three. He also leads the team in assists at 4.3 per game.
Surrounding Cohee is Aytes, who plays bigger than his 6’6” frame down low and will foul and get fouled, and three point shooters Brandon Better, Jacob Calloway, and James McGee. Better and Calloway are shooting above 40% on the season but McGee has started slow at a clean 33.3% which is well below his career average of 43.6%. McGee actually lead all of the NCAA in three-point shooting when he went a cool 61/120 for 50.8% in 2014-15.
They’ll add some diversity off the bench with 6’11” stretch center Ivan Madunic. He started slow, including two DNPs to open the season, but has gone 6/7 from deep his last games. Along with Aytes and starting center Christian Musoko, Southern Utah’s frontline struggles with foul trouble big time. Between the three of them, they’ve tallied 8 foul outs, with Musoko leading the pack at 5. Chances are, one of them fouls out against Iowa’s front court.
So what’s a Hawkeye bunch to do to eke over .500 on the season?
As they did against Drake, Iowa should utilize their advantage in the post with set plays to get their big men easy looks. Tyler Cook’s stat line against the Bulldogs was indicative of a game plan to reduce the ball sticking. His 10/12 shooting from 2-point range balanced with 6 turnovers shows he is best in the post when he isn’t seeking his own shot via drawn out post-ups where he has to pass if a shot isn’t there immediately. The Thunderbirds are allowing 56.7% shooting from two and rate in the bottom third of turning teams over, per KenPom.
Nicholas Baer should continue doing Nicholas Baer things. His unique game is nearly impossible to prepare for and even though he is still finding his way with his shot (his percentages are well below where he was each of the past two seasons), he’s returned to form in nearly every other way. His rebounding, assists, and defense are all outperforming where he was last year. One surprising area he needs to improve is ball control. His turnover rate is double what it was last year.
Thought Nicholas Baer's stat line yesterday might be super rare: 5 plus points/offensive/defensive rebounds/assists/steals. Here's the complete list and he's the first since 2014. pic.twitter.com/w5yl8f87I7— Met my old lover in a grocery store... (@HD_starr) December 18, 2017
(complete list = sports-ref.com database of games since the 2010-11 season)
Those are the only two Hawkeyes I’d like to see build on strongish performances against Drake. Truthfully, Iowa should be the better team when they have the ball and when the Thunderbirds have the ball. Though Southern Utah may keep it close for awhile behind limited turnovers and hot shooting from three, this game should mirror the games against similar (read: SWAC) opponents.
With the continuation of conference play right around the corner, Iowa has the opportunity to improve the shaky foundation its built thus far. Let’s hope it does.