In the #24/21 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-2, 0-2) final non-conference game, they play host to the Bryant Bulldogs (3-7) of Smithfield, Rhode Island.
Though Iowa has faced some bad teams already this season, Bryant strikes me as a different sort of bad. While they’ve been able to notch three wins - all at home - Iowa is the best team Bryant has played by a wide margin. Only Rhode Island has qualified as a “B” opponent according to KenPom. All of the Hawkeye’s other opponents rated 200 or worse have been on barnstorming tours of mid-to-high major teams. Bryant has largely stuck to the northeast and even finagled five home games out of the non-conference season.
Guards Adam Grant and Byron Hawkins lead the team in scoring at 15.8 and 14.3 points a game, respectively. Grant, a junior, is a more efficient player, though, Bryant lacks anyone particularly efficient on offense. The two are relatively smart with the ball, as is Sabastian Townes, as all three are ranked by KenPom in turnover rate. They have only turned the ball over 17.3% of their possessions, which may allude to their strength of schedule (still stronger than Iowa’s non-conference slate!).
Like many of Iowa’s opponents so far, they’ll often deploy a four-guard lineup, as the 6’5” Townes is often the second tallest player on the court. He is able to get to the line with impressive frequency and draws 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes according to KenPom. One area of concern is point guard Joe Kasperzyk, who also measures well in said metric, at 5.9 fouls drawn per 40.
Despite being fine in three of the four factors defensively (TO%, OReb%, FTA/FGA), the Bulldogs are horrible in effective FG percentage, as their opponents are shooting an eFG% of 59.8%. It’s driven from the 45.5% opponents are shooting from deep, as all three guards mentioned are only 6’1”.
So here we stand, a win away from an undefeated non-conference season Iowa surprisingly needed. With four sub-300 teams on the rosters (currently the easiest non-conference slate in the Big Ten), there were not many opportunities for the Hawkeyes to capitalize against good opponents. As of now, only Iowa State (+20.13, 17) has the higher adjusted expected margin than Iowa (+15.87, 33), per KenPom. Only three others are in the top 100: Oregon (42), Connecticut (88), and Pittsburgh (90).
Now seal the deal.
Maintain Defensive Effort
It’s hard to qualify whether Iowa’s defensive performance in the non-conference has been a function of opponent or improved efficiency but they are 10/11 in terms of holding opponents under 1 point/possession. Only Iowa State, 1.13 PPP, crossed that threshold. By my perusal, such efficiency has never been achieved under Fran. The closest an Iowa team has come was 2014/15, when the Hawkeyes held non-conference opponents under that mark in 11 of 13 non-conference games.
Overall, the improvement from last year to this year mimics what we saw in 2013, when Iowa’s defensive efficiency jumped from 205th to 24th. Right now, Iowa is at 89th versus 242nd. If they are able to hold on the defensive end of the floor and maintain their offensive performance, it is a team which can, and probably should, make the tournament.
No More Injuries
This has probably been the weirdest season, injury-wise, of Fran McCaffery’s tenure. Both Luka Garza and Connor McCaffery were held out of last week’s game and Cordell Pemsl’s surgery has him officially out for the rest of the season after he fought through the pain to own the Cyclones. With him and Jack Nunge redshirting, it’s imperative Iowa maintains the depth they have, especially up front.
The person who has emerged as arguably* the most important for the way Iowa would like to play is, dare I say, Nicholas Baer. His ability to slide into the four has allowed Fran to mitigate the injuries. It’s also helped that Baer has returned to form. His three point shooting has stabilized over 39%, right in line with freshman and sophomore year numbers. He has also added more to his game as he’s flashed more aggression in getting to the free throw line. He’s only eight makes away from a career high (currently 27).
* Yes, Tyler Cook is actually the most important as he is a mismatch for almost any post player in the country and can switch between the 4 and the 5 pretty fluidly.