For the second time this season, the Iowa men’s basketball team must pick itself up after a dispiriting loss to Michigan State. While Iowa rarely escapes East Lansing with a win, many fans believed the Hawkeyes were capable of pulling off the upset against Michigan State in their rematch at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, making the Hawkeyes’ collapse during the final fifteen minutes of the game especially difficult to swallow. Just as Iowa’s shooting started to go cold, the Spartans began to assert themselves offensively and impose their will on the boards, turning Iowa’s eight-point lead into a double-digit deficit in the blink of an eye.
Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, one loss (or even two losses to one team) does not define a season. Iowa goes on the road once again this Sunday to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (14-5, 4-4), a team the Hawkeyes have not beaten outside Carver-Hawkeye Arena since 2015. Minnesota has been an eclectic team this season; wins against Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Washington suggest that Minnesota is a clear NCAA tournament team, while a 27-point loss to Illinois suggests that they belong as an 11-seed and among the “Last Four In” of Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket projection. The Gophers are coming off a narrow defeat in their upset bid of Michigan and will attempt to use their genuine homecourt advantage and tough, physical style of play to reverse their fortunes against a longstanding rival.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into Sunday’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s defense keep the Gopher offense in check?
Minnesota’s offense has been wildly inconsistent so far this season. The Gophers have occasionally shown that they can score with the best of them, and they managed to put up 85 points against an excellent Nebraska defense with 32 points coming from Amir Coffey, the team’s leading scorer on the season. However, the Gophers have been held under 60 points four times this year, with all but one of these games ending in Minnesota defeats. The Gopher offense is at its best when Amir Coffey and senior forward Jordan Murphy are attacking the basket, but Coffey has struggled to finish in the paint this season, shooting only .484% from two.
Minnesota’s reliance on shots inside the arc is no surprise when one considers how poorly they shoot from outside it. During conference play the Gophers have shot only .305% from three and rank last in the Big Ten in both shots and makes from deep. Iowa has defended the three surprisingly well this season, holding its opponents to only .312% from beyond the arc. If the Hawkeyes can play stout defense in the interior and force the Gophers into taking more three-pointers than they are comfortable with, they should likely be able to contain Minnesota’s offense.
While Iowa’s defense ultimately collapsed in the second half under a barrage of three pointers, creative playmaking from Cassius Winston, and the bruising and efficient interior play of Nick Ward, the Hawkeyes actually acquitted themselves quite well on defense during the first half. Iowa rotated well, created early turnovers, and frequently forced the Spartans into taking contested shots. If the Hawkeyes can channel the defensive energy that let them take an early lead against Michigan State Thursday night and hold the Gophers under 70 points, they should have an excellent shot at escaping Williams Arena with a win.
2. Which team can win the free throw battle?
Iowa and Minnesota are the two best teams in the conference at getting to the foul line, with each team taking 26 free throws per game. Jordan Murphy particularly excels at getting to the line; his aggressive style of play, excellent ability to find inside positioning in the lane, and impressive skill at drawing contact make him a difficult player to defend without committing fouls. Additionally, Murphy is an absolute force on the boards, averaging over 12 rebounds (including three offensive boards) per game. Murphy’s skill on the offensive glass frequently results in him drawing fouls on put-back dunks like the one below, turning successful defensive possessions into opportunities for the Gophers to put up points.
Although both teams do an excellent job getting to the free throw line, Iowa has proven far better at capitalizing on these opportunities than the Gophers. While Iowa ranks first in the conference in free throw shooting percentage (.760), Minnesota is only the 10th best free throw shooting team in the Big Ten at .673% despite taking the second highest number of attempts from the charity stripe. Both teams can use their ability to get to the line consistently to help manufacture points if they begin struggling from the field or to shorten their opponents’ frontcourt rotation by racking up fouls on opposing players (Murphy and Gopher center Daniel Oturu are both particularly prone to committing fouls). However, unless the Gophers can improve their free throw shooting, they may struggle to keep pace with the Hawkeyes in this respect and may be unable to capitalize on their frequent trips to the line.
3. Is Isaiah Moss STILL on a shooting streak from last season?
Isaiah Moss was one of the most maddening Hawkeye players to watch last season largely due to his massive inconsistency on offense. While Moss’ per-game scoring numbers have fallen this year due to his improved shot selection and the arrival of Joe Wieskamp, Moss has actually become a more consistent shooter from the floor, and has particularly improved his accuracy from deep (Moss is shooting .441% from three this season compared to .386% last year). Still, there are many games in which Moss largely disappears in the second half not due to a poor performance on his part, but because coach Fran McCaffery feels more comfortable with two lead guards on the floor in Jordan Bohannon and Connor McCaffery.
Based on Isaiah Moss’ performances against Minnesota last year, Fran McCaffery should aim to keep him on the floor as much as possible. In two games against the Gophers during the 2017-2018 season, Moss scored 48 points on 17-28 shooting, including an incendiary 8-13 from three. This hot shooting peaked during an insane 96 second run near the end of the Hawkeyes’ last trip to Williams Arena in which Moss scored 19 points and single-handedly propelled the Hawkeyes back into a game that they had been counted out of just minutes before.
Moss was virtually a non-factor against the Spartans on Thursday, shooting 1-7 from the field and 0-2 from three. However, Iowa’s offense is far more potent when Moss is a major scoring contributor as it forces the defense to account for yet another scorer capable of hitting from range or attacking the rim off the dribble. Moss seemed to have the Gophers’ number last season, and another big game from him in this series could help the Hawkeyes achieve an elusive road victory against Minnesota.
Iowa followed up its first loss to Michigan State with a fantastic home victory over a rival in Iowa State during what was arguably the Hawkeyes’ best game of the season. Here’s hoping they can replicate that performance on Sunday.