The NR/#25 Iowa Hawkeyes (12-3, 1-3) head to Evanston, IL to take on the Northwestern Wildcats (10-5, 1-3) later tonight as both teams hope to climb (or at least not fall) in the Big Ten standings with eight teams sitting at .500 or better.
Northwestern faced a similarly soft non-conference schedule (320 according to KenPom!) as the Hawkeyes but fell to Fresno State by 19 points and Oklahoma in overtime. Their Big Ten record is kissed with two two-point losses (Indiana and Michigan) and a beatdown in East Lansing. Their last outing is a two-point win against Illinois on a last-minute three.
So far, Northwestern is carried by a good defense and mediocre offense as they give up 63.2 points on average and score just 71.9, good for 27th and 232nd respectively. Adjusting for tempo and opponent adjust their offense up to 115th and they look, statistically, like a reverse Iowa.
Vic Law has been the straw to stir the Wildcat offense, as he averages a team-high 17.6 points on .440/.376/.836 shooting. He’s second on the team in both rebounds (6.3) and assists (2.8) and possesses a low turnover rate. He’s also a bit of a force defensively, as he’s averaging 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks a game. Dererk Pardon adds girth down low to the senior front court with 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds a game.
A.J. Turner, Ryan Taylor, and Miller Kopp (Northwestern always has a guy whose name immediate stands out as someone from Northwestern) round out the starting lineup and average a collective 27 points a game. Kopp, a freshman, will often yield his time to Anthony Gaines as he averages just 16.1 minutes to Gaines 22.5. The other four starters average 30 minutes or more in a rotation which is not particularly deep.
Mike Hlas seemed happy to share the 17-point deficit in 11 straight road games statistic as Iowa during the Hawkeyes’ trip to West Lafayette so that is probably going to hang over this team until they pack the D. It reminds me of trips I’ll take where I could squeeze shampoo or conditioner into a smaller, TSA-compliant container but decide I’ll give the hotel toiletries a chance when I get there. More often than not, I’ll find myself underwhelmed at best by the hotel’s offerings and decide I can go a couple days without a good condition.
That’s a long way to say: Iowa isn’t packing the defense nor are they finding it in one ounce bottles when they check into the team hotel on the road.
Iowa seemed to strike a little bit of gold with the 3-2 zone they deployed against Nebraska so I suspect we might see it again. Northwestern, at this juncture, has just Vic Law (32/85) and Miller Kopp (11/26) shooting above 35% from three on more than one attempt per game. Ryan Taylor would be poised to capitalize as a zone-buster, as he shot 42.4% from range last year at Evansville.
On the whole, though, Northwestern’s offense isn’t particularly good at anything and their effective FG% is at 49.9% (206th). If they’re hitting shots, it probably it probably spells doom for Iowa. In the seven games they’ve averaged over 1 point per possession, they’ve won.
Pound the Paint
Luka Garza’s return against Nebraska enabled Iowa to return to the more traditional front court with Ryan Kriener starting and Garza supplementing off the bench alongside Tyler Cook. In Kopp, Law, and Pardon, the Wildcats start guys at 6’7”, 6’7”, and 6’8”. The advantage for Iowa is inside as it has been all season. The key, of course, will be to get the Hawkeye big men the ball.
Iowa’s turnovers have not been a problem like they were last season but remain under the surface as an issue which could always return. In the slow-paced game Northwestern favors, Iowa cannot be complacent to stagnate their offense with elementary entry passes. Run sets, let Tyler cook from the wing, play the clean inside-out game which has benefitted Iowa more often than not so far this season.
A side effect - or maybe the raison d’être - of Iowa’s inside game is the sheer stress it can inflict on an opponent incapable of going toe-to-toe with Iowa’s big men. The Hawkeyes continue to sit atop the FTA/FGA metric at .524. Tyler Cook is still drawing 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes as an absolute force inside. Another way to put it: if Tyler Cook is lines up against the same guy for 30 minutes - his season average - he’s probably fouling out.
Behind Law and Pardon are Barret Benson and Pete Nance. Behind them are, well, it’s unclear. Let’s see if Iowa can find out.
Perhaps the reason it’s so important for Iowa to force the issue down low is how it can open up their perimeter shooting. Against Northwestern, it’s particularly important, as they are doing an excellent job at not only limiting attempts from deep but also containing those attempts to an impressive 27.6%.
This isn’t to say Iowa is incapable of being propelled by a strong night from Jordan Bohannon, Isaiah Moss. or Joe Wieskamp from behind the arc but that Northwestern’s defense is explicitly designed to make life hell for shooters as the Wildcats have allowed an opponent to shoot better than 40% just twice this season. If Iowa can get above that mark, no doubt will it be to their benefit. It just isn’t likely.