The #23/24 Iowa Hawkeyes (14-3, 3-3) travel to State College, PA to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions (7-10, 0-6) in another pseudo-house of horrors. Iowa is just 3-4 at the Bryce-Jordan Center under Fran McCaffery and currently sport a two-game losing streak.
Penn State’s strength of schedule ranks fourth according to KenPom, with eight of their 17 games coming against foes ranked 32nd or better. They were able to pick off Virginia Tech (7) at home in November but also sport losses to DePaul (105) and Bradley (207).
Tony Carr’s declaration to the NBA Draft has left them rudderless on offense as their offense has dropped 120 spots via KenPom. All of their shooting percentages are downright ugly, with a split of .408/.307/.671 (FG%/3P%/FT%). In conference, they’re averaging just 58 points a game - the worst in the conference - on one of the ugliest splits I’ve ever seen: .382/.222/.566. Granted it’s come against the second strongest schedule but it doesn’t make it any less ugly. In other words, they are due.
Leading the charge for Penn State in their current form is junior big man, Lamar Stevens. He averages 18.6 points and 8 rebounds in 35.8 minutes of action, most often at power forward. However, it’s taking him 16.9 shots & 5.0 trips to the free throw line to reach that total. His percentages are low lighted by 17% from deep on about three attempts per game.
Rasir Bolton and Josh Reaves join Stevens as Penn State’ double digit scorers, averaging 11.8 and 10.2, respectively. Though Bolton has the spark plug ability, evidenced by there games over 25 points, he’s plagued by freshman errors. Most recently, he struggled to maintain defensive assignment as PSU tried to get back into their game against Michigan State. He played just six minutes.
If it feels like Reaves has been around forever, it’s because he has. The senior wing has started 92 games for the Nittany Lions and has led the conference in steals this season and the prior two.
The last guy to mention utterly roasted Iowa last year but has yet to find his footing is Mike Watkins. Amidst struggles with mental health and off-the-court trouble, he’s not quite had a breakout game for the Nittany Lions akin to his 19 point, 78% shooting performances against the Hawkeyes. His early season absence has played a part in the seven starting lineups Pat Chambers has used this season.
Where does that leave Iowa? As the easiest conference opponent Penn State has faced, the Hawkeyes represent a bit of an opportunity for the desperate Nittany Lions.
The last three games, all wins, have been marked by urgency from Fran McCaffery and company. Though Iowa led for the lion’s share of the Nebraska game, they matched every run the Cornhuskers threw at them. They disallowed Northwestern to continue the ugly streak of 17-point deficits on the road. They salvaged a quality performance after a classic Big Ten rock fight in the first half against Ohio State.
In these three games, they’ve had all the hallmarks of a tournament-caliber team.
Penn State’s horrid shooting is another chance for Iowa to pack the paint in zone to prevent a breakout post performance and cut off driving lanes. Barring a totally unexpected explosion - seriously, their percentages are all 263rd or worse according to sports-ref - Iowa should be able to shut them down. It includes finishing possessions by securing the rebound, since the one thing Penn State is kinda good at is rebounding their misses.
At a venue which rarely seems to rise to the occasion, this urgency is historically tough for Iowa to manufacture. Should the Hawks do so tonight, there’s reason to believe they are building something special.
If Cook is able to go in this game, it completely changes its complexity. First and foremost, it pits arguably Iowa’s best player against Penn State’s. Much like Iowa did against Ohio State and Northwestern, Cook’s presence will force Stevens to defend and make it easier to defend Penn State, by way of foul trouble. Not only does Cook draw 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes, he’s doing so while accumulating just 2.6.
Much is made of Tyler Cook’s turnovers, and no doubt, it is not pretty at 3.1 a game. But it is actually coming as he’s raised his assists to 2.6 a game. His freshman year assist percentage was just 7.9% and he raised it to 12.5% last year and 18.1% this year. His turnover percentage has hovered right around 20%. I expect Penn State to hound him and believe he is primed to find the open man when he isolates on offense.
If Cook can go, then allows Nicholas Baer to come off the bench in the role he most excels. His shooting has largely returned to form as has his turnovers since being less-relied upon to do more ballhandling. And boy do the advanced stats like his defense as do the regular ones: he’s near his career highs of 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks all while not fouling despite playing four minutes less than when he registered them.
Penn State is gonna hound Joe Wieskamp with Reaves all night. If Cook CANNOT go, Pat Chambers will add Stevens to the mix in defending him. I think the world of Wieskamp and think tonight is a chance for him to show what he’s got against a chippy Penn State squad.