The calendar has flipped over to March and suddenly Iowa finds itself planted firmly on the bubble.
Yes, you read that right.
It seemed far-fetched to hope the Hawkeyes would work their way back into NCAA Tournament consideration just a few short weeks ago; I for one was just holding my breath about sneaking into the NIT.
That was before Iowa rattled off three consecutive wins, though, including two on the road against ranked teams in Maryland and Wisconsin. Simply put: the Hawks are playing some of their best ball of the season at the perfect time.
Of course, that trend will need to continue in tomorrow’s regular season finale versus Penn State (noon on BTN) and into next week’s Big Ten Tournament for the Hawkeyes to sneak in the back door of the big dance, but even if that doesn’t play out in Iowa’s favor it doesn’t take anything away from a really fun stretch of basketball lately.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the last two road wins is that the Hawks were able to endure cold shooting from Peter Jok (combined 5-20 from the field) on their journey to the Promised Land. It’s a testament to the development of Iowa’s young guys that an off night for Jok isn’t a death knell to the Hawkeyes chances.
It’s also worth pointing out that Iowa won in the Kohl Center while largely playing Wisconsin’s brand of basketball, which is impressive. I wouldn’t have thought the Hawkeyes could win that game without speeding up the pace significantly.
But that’s enough about where we’ve been, time to turn our attention to the next pit stop on our journey to the postseason: tomorrow’s senior day matchup with Penn State (14-16, 6-11).
Scouting the Nittany Lions
Much has been made of Iowa’s youth this season, but Penn State is largely in the same boat. Three starters for Pat Chambers’ squad are freshmen, including the Nittany Lions’ two leading scorers.
Topping that list is freshman point guard Tony Carr, who averages 13 points per game on the year. Carr is a talented player with a bright future, but has struggled to take care of the ball at times (1.5 assist/turnover) and is not typically an efficient scorer (granted, few are on this Penn State team). Nonetheless, Carr will present an interesting challenge to Iowa’s young guards on the defensive end that will be worth keeping tabs on.
Joining Carr in the backcourt is junior Shep Garner, another fairly inefficient scorer (38% shooting from the field) capable of getting hot and making defenses pay. Garner is coming off a 20 point performance in Penn State’s loss to Ohio State and will be a tough matchup for whoever gets the nod to guard him (likely Jok).
In the frontcourt, the Nittany Lions are led by 6-7, 218-pound freshman Lamar Stephens. Stephens is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging about 12 and 6 on 43% shooting. Along with Carr and Michael Watkins (more on him shortly), Stephens is a good building block for the future of Pat Chambers’ program.
The 3-point marksman to keep an eye on is 6-6 junior Payton Banks, who’s made 70 shots from long range on the season at a 37% clip. Banks is another scorer for Penn State that is largely a volume shooter, however if he gets his shot going he can be dangerous.
Rounding out the Nittany Lions’ starting five is the aforementioned 6-9, 246-pound freshman Watkins. Watkins averages 9 and 8 on the season and has shown a penchant for putting up some gaudy stat lines at times. Exhibit A: in a recent overtime loss to Purdue, Watkins went for 11 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals. And that’s against a strong Boilermaker frontcourt.
As has often been the case under Chambers, Penn State’s calling card this year is its defense, checking in at #39 in KenPom’s adjusted defense. The Nittany Lions pair that strong D with an offense that ranks near the bottom of the conference, though, and consistently struggles to put points on the board.
What Iowa has to do to win
First things first, not get caught up in the emotion of Peter Jok’s final game in Carver. It’s been an amazing run for Jok in Iowa City and I don’t think this ends up being an issue, but it’s worth mentioning.
The Hawks also can’t get caught looking ahead to the ‘what-ifs’ and such that will come with a win tomorrow. Iowa’s clawed its way back into the bubble discussion, but can easily reverse that trend in a big way with a loss to the Nittany Lions.
In terms of offense, the Hawkeyes have been sloppy at times recently (19 turnovers against Wisconsin is a testament to that) and need to reign in those miscues against a stout PSU defense.
On the other end of the court, Tony Carr ought to draw the most attention from the Iowa defense. The Hawkeyes need to tarry and harass him all game and prevent him from getting comfortable.
The Iowa fan in me is worried about this one. It would sort of be vintage Iowa to give itself a glimmer of hope of dancing and promptly shooting itself in the foot (probably more like head, actually) against a foundering Penn State team.
Objectively, I also don’t see that scenario playing out tomorrow.
Let’s keep this thing moving.
Prediction: Iowa 77, Penn State 64