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Iowa Basketball Searches for Season’s First Big Ten Win Against Minnesota

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Can the red-hot Luka Garza and his Hawkeye teammates shoot their way to their first conference win of the year?

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Although conference play in the Big Ten has only just started, the Iowa men’s basketball team is quickly getting a sense for where it stands in the conference hierarchy. The Hawkeyes’ road loss on Friday to 4th ranked Michigan showed that they are not ready to be included among the Big Ten’s elite teams, but their upcoming jaunt with the Minnesota Golden Gophers might give them a chance to prove that they aren’t as far removed from the top tier as some might think.

Minnesota, like Iowa, projects to be a middle of the pack Big Ten squad that likely won’t be able to compete for a conference title but could have a shot to rattle a few cages before by season’s end. The Gophers are a fairly inexperienced team after the departures of Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey to the professional ranks, as all three of their top scoring players are sophomores and their one senior starter (Alihan Demir) is a graduate transfer who will be playing his first Big Ten conference game against Iowa.

While the Gophers have stumbled to a 4-4 record out of the gate, Richard Pitino’s squad has the talent to be a fringe NCAA tournament team and could be competing closely with Iowa for seeding in the Big Ten Tournament down the line. An early season win over the Gophers would go a long way towards establishing a favorable spot in the Big Ten’s pecking order relative to their hated rival.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into Monday’s game:

1. Can Luka Garza best Daniel Oturu in a battle of the bigs?

Luka Garza is having an absolutely sensational junior season. The big man from DC has dramatically improved his scoring (up from 13.1 to 22.7 ppg), his rebounding (up from 4.5 a game to 9.8 this season), and three-point shooting numbers (from .292 in 2018-19 to .429 in 2019-20) en route to becoming the leading scorer in the Big Ten.

Garza will be matched up against the conference’s SECOND leading scorer on Monday night. Minnesota’s sophomore center Daniel Oturu has been a revelation for the Gophers on both ends of the court. Most of Oturu’s 17.5 points-per-game come on the low block, but the addition of a jump shot to his game has made him all the more dangerous, especially since he is athletic enough to beat flat-footed big men off the dribble if they guard him too closely. Oturu also leads the conference in rebounds (10.9 per game), establishing him as one of the most dominant low-post forces in college basketball this season.

Garza looked nearly unstoppable during his 44-point explosion against Michigan, though Oturu might be one of the few players in the conference who has a chance to contain him. The 6-10 center is a defensive force, swatting away 3.4 shots a game and allowing fewer points per 100 possessions than any of his teammates on a stingy defense that allows only 63 points per contest. In addition to his defensive prowess, Oturu has the offensive acumen to test Garza’s defensive skills and threaten to put him in foul trouble, the same very situation which limited his effectiveness against San Diego State.

Yet Garza’s defense has undeniably improved this season. While his defense is still limited by his poor vertical leap and slow lateral movement, his high motor, bulkier frame, and improved ability to contest shots has made Garza Iowa’s most effective post defender this season. Michigan’s Jon Teske proved a difficult assignment for Luka at times, but if Garza can continue his hot shooting against Minnesota while also defending Oturu without picking up too many fouls, the Gophers could be in for a rough ride.

2. What can the Hawkeyes expect from Jordan Bohannon?

Luka Garza is Iowa’s best player, but Jordan Bohannon is the engine that makes this team go. Need proof? Consider that Bohannon averaged 18.5 points per game in Iowa’s big wins over Texas Tech and Syracuse compared to only 4.66 points in each of their three losses.

When Bohannon is healthy enough to play significant minutes at full speed, he forces defenses to account for him at all times. His ridiculous three-point shooting range stretches the defense and creates more open lanes for him to find cutting teammates, as well as for Luka Garza to go to work on the block without worrying about help defenders coming from the perimeter. He also commands double teams before he even reaches the top of the key, making it easier for shooters like Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick to do damage from deep.

All of this, of course, is contingent on Bohannon being an active and effective part of the offense. Bohannon’s hip injury seems to be deterring him from driving into the lane much at all, resulting in Bohannon shooting career lows in two-point attempts (2.0 a game) and free throw attempts (1.5 a game), with the latter being a byproduct of him drawing fewer fouls. He’s also shooting a career low 34.6% from three this season and has seemingly struggled to find his offensive rhythm in several games this year.

With speculation swirling about whether he will shut things down and take a redshirt this season, Iowa fans may not see much more of Bohannon’s sweet shooting stroke in 2019. If Bohannon’s remaining games are numbered, hitting a few big three pointers and sparking Iowa’s offense against a Gopher team that has held opponents to 29.4% shooting behind the arc would be an awfully important parting gift.

3. Which Iowa defense will show up on Monday night?

It takes a special kind of team to hold an ACC powerhouse program to 54 points in one game only to turn around and surrender 103 points to a Big Ten powerhouse program the next. Iowa’s defense has been a serious case of Jekyll and Hyde so far this season; at times it appears that their decision to play a small-ball starting lineup makes them quicker and more adept at making timely defensive rotations, but their three losses have all exposed serious flaws in their ability to execute Fran McCaffery’s zone defensive schemes or to play effective man defense with any consistency.

Minnesota isn’t an offensive juggernaut by any means, but Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr is dangerous off the dribble, and Gabe Kalscheur, Alihan Demir, and Payton Willis can all light it up from three. While Michigan could throw almost an entire roster of scorers at Iowa, most of the Gophers’ offensive production is limited to their starting five. Iowa’s offense is good enough that it doesn’t need its defense to be elite in order to win. If McCaffery can coax even an average defensive performance from his team on Monday, they should be able to secure their first conference win of the season and climb up a rung or two in the Big Ten’s power rankings.