How quickly things can change. The Iowa men’s basketball team has seen its five-game winning streak evaporate in favor of a two-game losing streak over the past week, spoiling many of the positive feelings felt by the program’s fanbase in the process. Iowa’s loss on Sunday to Minnesota was exhausting; disastrous defense, disappearing acts by Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp, and an Iowa power forward who momentarily confused himself for a point guard all proved too much for Iowa’s furious late-game comeback attempt to overcome, resulting in an 87-92 defeat at the hands of the Gophers.
Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, things don’t get any easier. While Iowa does return to the friendly confines of Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, they will have to take on the 5th ranked Michigan Wolverines. Iowa’s last matchup against the Wolverines came during last season’s Big Ten tournament, when the scrappy Hawkeyes surprisingly took the future national runner-ups into overtime before eventually falling 79-71. While John Beilein’s team is coming off a win against rival Ohio State on Tuesday night, the Wolverines have been the sole focus of Iowa’s attention since returning to campus early this week. This extra time to prepare may prove entirely necessary for the Hawkeyes to have a chance to pull the upset over a Wolverine squad that is not just one of the top teams in the conference, but in the country as well.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into Friday’s game:
1. Can Iowa play defense?
Iowa scored 87 points against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, shot 54% from the field, and made a fantastic 55% of their three-pointers. Such an outstanding offensive performance should almost always signal a victory for the team that accounted for it, and one could be forgiven for assuming that the final score was an Iowa blowout. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, this offensive explosion came on the same day that its defense surrendered 92 points to a Minnesota team which at the time had one of the lowest offensive efficiency ratings in the conference.
While Iowa’s defense is markedly improved from last season, it remains the program’s Achilles heel; after all, a jump 78 spots up the national rankings in points allowed per game is substantially less impressive when one considers that Iowa ranks 239th in this category after finishing in 317th place a year ago. In conference play Iowa has surrendered has the Big Ten’s second-worst opponent field goal percentage (.469), allows makes on the highest percentage of two-point shots (.561), and has allowed the most made three-pointers (79). Iowa allows an atrocious 98.51 points per every 100 possessions, the worst such rating in the conference (by contrast, Michigan leads the Big Ten in this metric with 81.6 points allowed).
Iowa’s prescription to its defensive woes against the Gophers was to constantly switch schemes, alternating from man to zone and employing a number of presses designed to catch Minnesota off-guard. Iowa’s three-quarter court press stymied the Gophers for a few minutes late in the second half, but aside from this brief exception, each new defense the Hawkeyes switched to proved just as inept as the last. It doesn’t matter how many defenses a team can run if they lack the ability to execute any of them effectively.
Michigan is far from an offensive juggernaut, but they do have a few players in Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis, and Jordan Poole who are capable shot-makers. Still, while the 2018-19 Michigan Wolverines may not be stocked with the dynamic scorers that defined many of the program’s successful teams, if Iowa plays defense Friday the way they did against Minnesota it simply won’t matter. Michigan’s defense is elite (they allow the second fewest points-per-game with 56.1), so the Hawkeyes cannot count on overpowering the Wolverines with sheer offensive force. Iowa needs to get stops on defense to win this game, and failure to do so could lead to an ugly result.
2. Can Iowa limit turnovers?
If porous defense was the biggest weakness of the 2017-18 Iowa Hawkeyes, turnovers were a close second. The Hawkeyes gave the ball away 441 last year (they ranked 223rd in the country in this respect) and committed more turnovers in conference play than anyone in else in the Big Ten. Iowa has improved greatly in this area this season due in part to the sure ballhandling of Connor McCaffery and fewer high-risk passes by Jordan Bohannon.
Iowa’s game against Minnesota appeared to be a regression in this area. Iowa committed 14 turnovers including five from their star player Tyler Cook, none more devastating that Cook’s attempt to dribble the ball coast-to-coast on a pivotal late-game possession that predictably ended in a Hawkeye turnover that sealed their defeat. Much was made of Cook’s improved ballhandling skills during the offseason, and he has made notable improvements in his passing acumen. But if Cook’s handle has improved then his decision-making has regressed; Cook actually leads the conference in turnovers-per-game with 3.2
As mentioned before, Michigan has a fantastic defense that prides itself on preventing its opponents from getting the types of shots they want. Iowa understandably wants to get Cook touches on the low post, but the Wolverines are likely to make this difficult by swarming the talented big man and forcing him to either take a tightly contested inside shot or kick the ball out. More concerning, however, is the risk that Cook may try to manufacture his offense by driving recklessly into the heat of the Wolverine defense if the Wolverines can successfully stymie his inside game. As good as the Wolverines are, the Hawkeyes can ill afford to make many unforced errors and will need to show improvement in this area from last week to secure a win.
3. Can Iowa continue its success at getting to the free throw line?
Iowa’s ability to get to and convert from the free throw line has been one of the most discussed stories about this team since the start of conference play and has served as an important insurance policy to help the Hawkeyes weather the cold shooting stretches that occasionally plague them. Friday’s game against the Wolverines will be as fascinating test of just how effective the Hawkeyes really are at getting to the line against elite competition. While Iowa leads the nation in made free throws with 416, Michigan has allowed fewer free throw attempts (244) and free throw makes (158) than any team in college basketball. The chasm between these two statistics is stunning; Iowa has made nearly twice as many free throws as Michigan’s opponents have even attempted against the Wolverines this season.
Michigan’s skill at denying their opponents access to the free throw line is a real testament to the discipline of John Beilein’s team, but Iowa’s high number of free throw attempts certainly isn’t luck. Players like Tyler Cook and Luka Garza are genuine offensive mismatches on the block, Connor McCaffery and Joe Wieskamp have great instincts in their ability to probe the defense and initiate contact while driving, and nearly every player in Iowa’s rotation is a skilled enough shooter to capitalize on their trips to the line. Still, Michigan’s defense and Iowa’s aggressive, foul-inducing offense will be a fascinating case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and the result of this collision could have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
If Iowa plays Michigan the way it played Minnesota last Sunday the Wolverines may well run the Hawkeyes out of the building. However, if Iowa can clean up its mistakes and recapture the energy that propelled them on their five-game winning streak, they might just be able to make this brief homecoming a happy one.