Iowa basketball’s 73-63 win against Northwestern on Wednesday night may look somewhat pedestrian on paper but was a significant step forward for the team on multiple levels. For one, the Hawkeyes finally managed to win a true road game after humiliating defeats against Michigan State and Purdue, and although Northwestern has been offensively-challenged for most of the year, it was incredibly encouraging to see an Iowa defense that had absolutely collapsed in previous road games holding a conference foe under 70 points. More significant, however, was the fact that Iowa managed a double-digit road victory with its best player (Tyler Cook) on the bench with a knee injury. The Hawkeyes continued to pound the ball inside even without Cook on the court, resulting in Iowa shooting ten more free throws than the Wildcats and putting virtually the entire Northwestern front court in foul trouble.
As encouraged as Hawkeye fans should be by their team’s performance on Wednesday, Buckeye fans should be equally perplexed by their squad’s showing that same night. Iowa’s upcoming opponent followed up its recent loss to Michigan State with an uninspired performance against a Rutgers team that was spurred to a gutsy, hard-earned victory by the loss of its leading scorer Eugene Omoyuri early in the game. The Buckeyes (12-3) are certainly a better team than what they showed against the Scarlet Knights, however, and will should be highly motivated to end its losing streak and return to its winning ways by snagging a road victory of their own against the Hawkeyes.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into Saturday’s game:
1. Are Iowa’s star big men healthy and ready to dominate?
While the Hawkeyes were able to take down the Wildcats without Tyler Cook in the lineup, it will be difficult to replicate this feat against Ohio State. The Buckeye defense has been stellar so far this season, particularly on the perimeter. Opponents are shooting a measly .296% from three against Ohio State, and the Buckeyes have excelled at containing opposing playmakers, ranking 16th in the nation in assists allowed with only 149 through fifteen games (for reference, the Hawkeyes have surrendered 240 despite playing only one more game). In order to consistently score on the Buckeyes, opponents need players who can beat their defender one-on-one, penetrate the lane, and reliably finish at the rim.
Tyler Cook would help the Hawkeyes immensely on all of those fronts. Cook is incredibly dangerous attacking the rim in transition and has an explosive first step that allows him to make flat-footed post defenders look silly. No Hawkeye is more capable of getting to the rim and creating his own shot on the interior than Cook, and his return to the lineup would bolster Iowa’s offensive prospects immensely in this contest. The Buckeyes also struggle at rebounding (they rank 206th in total rebounds on the season), and Cook’s status as the Hawkeyes’ best glass cleaner would make him an asset in exploiting this weakness. Fran McCaffery indicated that Cook would consult a doctor on the state of his knee upon his return to Iowa City, and Hawkeye fans can only hope that the standout big man receives a clean bill of health for this pivotal contest.
Similarly, a return to the starting lineup for Luka Garza would be a significant boon to the Hawkeyes’ chances for victory against Ohio State. Garza was extremely effective at drawing fouls with his back-to-the-basket game against Northwestern, but still showed signs of a lingering injury: Garza came off the bench, shot only 3-9 from the field, and, while not normally known for his agility, he did appear to have lost some quickness on the defensive end. Few if any players in the conference play harder than Garza, but that effort could be better utilized if his injured left ankle is finally at 100% by Saturday.
2. Does Iowa have an answer for Kaleb Wesson?
As good as CJ Jackson has been this season, make no mistake- Kaleb Wesson is the straw that stirs the drink for this Buckeye squad. The sophomore center flashed tremendous potential last season and is well on his way towards maximizing it in 2019 as he is averaging over 17 points-per game, has improved as both a rebounder and a defender, and has developed a credible three-point shot that makes him far more versatile and difficult to defend on offense. Wesson is skilled with both hands near the basket and, despite it being a criminally underutilized aspect of his game, Wesson has flashed an impressive passing acumen from time to time and has the ability to make defenses pay for double-teaming him in the post.
While Iowa’s perimeter defense continues to be its Achilles’ heel, the Hawkeyes have been surprisingly adept at defending the post this season. Iowa forced Ethan Happ to give the ball up frequently in its matchup against Wisconsin, largely contained future lottery pick Bol Bol on offense, and has struggled much more with preventing quick guards from getting to the rim than with stopping post players from scoring in the interior. Wesson is the type of talent that can test the efficacy of even a stout interior defense, but if the Hawkeyes are able to hold the skilled big man in check, they should be able to stop the Buckeye offense from running away with the game.
3. Can Iowa continue to get to the line?
Sometimes the best way to cope with a defense that excels at stifling offensive output from the field is to focus on getting to the foul line, and no team in college basketball this year has been more effective at this than the Hawkeyes. Iowa has taken a nation-leading 463 foul shots this year and is making them at an impressive 76% rate, which aided the Hawkeyes immensely in their win over Northwestern. While Iowa’s guards have been somewhat inconsistent on offense this season, nobody can question the effectiveness of players like Jordan Bohannon, Isaiah Moss, and Connor McCaffery from the line. Big man Luka Garza has also continued his excellent output from the charity stripe, while Tyler Cook and Ryan Kriener have both made noticeable improvements in this aspect of their game thus far in their junior seasons.
It’s no secret that Iowa has played better at home than on the road this season, and the Hawkeyes are fortunate to face the Buckeyes in Carver-Hawkeye Arena as they attempt to claw their way back to a .500 record in Big Ten play. Still, should the Hawkeyes encounter a shooting slump from the field that even an energized home crowd is unable to propel them past, the Hawkeyes’ ability to make it to the free throw line and capitalize on those opportunities may be a major factor that could determine the outcome of the game.