Six days after beating on Illinois to move out of last place, the Iowa Hawkeyes (10-9, 1-5) have another opportunity to beat an opponent with the same conference record and improve their standing.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-8, 1-5) pose many of the same threats Illinois did a week ago, including hard-nosed defense and attention to rebounding, packaged slightly differently. The Scarlet Knights have nowhere near the same offensive skill as Illinois (they shoot 42.6% from 2, 30.7% from 3, and 63.0% from the line) but take much better care of the ball with a turnover percentage of only 15.3%.
With senior leader Mike Williams out on injury, Steve Pikiell will lean heavily on guards Corey Sanders, Geo Baker, and Souf Mensah to carry his burden. Sanders, their leading scorer at 14.2 points/game, is not a threat from deep, but takes good care of the ball despite regularly dribbling into the trees. Baker is more of a threat from deep - he shoots 36% - while Mensah hasn’t done all that much (he’s 1/12 from the floor on the season).
Starting alongside Sanders and Baker are Issa Thiam, Deshawn Freeman, and Mamadou Doucoure. Thiam is their best shooter, at 41.5% from three, and his size (6’10”) allows him to get his shot off over most anyone. Despite his size, he’s likely to live more on the perimeter, though he’ll get his share of rebounds. Freeman is a garbage man in every sense of the term, as he’s not going to post any Hawkeye with aplomb but will be relentless on the boards and on defense. Doucoure is part of a center rotation which will see four other guys get time.
With such a defensive-oriented opponent, what can the Hawkeyes do to ensure they leave Piscataway with a win?
Hold down the fort: Though Rutgers struggles shooting the ball, they are going to be tough to manage on defense. I expect Fran McCaffery to deploy the zone which worked wonders against Illinois often, which means it’s absolutely vital for Iowa to find a man to box out to close out the possession. In man defense, it’ll likely be Tyler Cook who draws Freeman. Cook has been a good rebounder all season but this might be a game we see his output diminish if his focus turns to eliminating the threat of Freeman.
Despite their rebounding prowess on the offensive side of the floor, Rutgers does not necessarily translate it to defense. Cook, and perhaps especially Luka Garza, will be able to get theirs on the offensive glass. It’s a great way to manufacture individual offense if Rutgers defense has Iowa sputtering.
Tighten up: In theory, a deep rotation is a good thing but there is a fine line between leveraging a strength and limiting chemistry when it’s deployed. Against Illinois, McCaffery sent subs in 15 times (including 19 individual substitutions) during the first half. It is impossible to develop any sort of offensive or defensive chemistry in such a scenario. Not including overtime, McCaffery subbed only 8 times, plus 3 end-game offensive/defense switches, which allowed the guys on the floor to develop offensive and defensive chemistry.
It’s a chicken/egg scenario: is there no chemistry because there’s no stability or is Fran tinkering because there is no chemistry? Sometimes coach just needs to let the five on the floor ride or die. Though Iowa has 12 Big Ten-caliber players available, it doesn’t mean each needs to be used equally.
Take care of the ball: Iowa showed, once again, what they are capable of in the second half against Illinois. The offense was humming: they sprung guys open regularly, attacked the boards, and rarely turned it over. The only problem? The first half where the Hawkeyes allowed 16 points off 11 turnovers. Iowa simply cannot replicate these number against Rutgers, who would only be able to score 1.45 points per possession under such a scenario.
It won’t be easy, of course, as secondary ball handlers need to continue to aid Jordan Bohannon who has done a fine job of limiting his own turnovers. Opponents are able to limit Iowa in getting into their offense by pressing Bohannon but his turnover numbers are no worse for wear. Isaiah Moss should have another assertive game as Rutgers is thin in the backcourt without Williams. So far this season, Moss has two games with exactly half his free throw attempts (18 out of 36 total). He needs to manufacture points by getting to the line more.
Though Rutgers is improving, they are still a long ways off from where they can be a good basketball team. Iowa has the players to limit Rutgers’ strength and should be well positioned to capitalize on their deficiencies.
Let’s take 12th place.