Don’t look now, but the Iowa Hawkeyes are on another winning streak! Iowa followed up its statement victory against the Michigan Wolverines with close wins over both Indiana and Northwestern and is set to travel to New Jersey for a bout against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights this Saturday. Iowa has yet to face off against Rutgers this season, but in a bizarre bit of scheduling will take them on again only two weeks after this contest.
At 12-12 (5-9), Rutgers is in the midst of what would viewed as a disappointing season for most programs, but should actually be taken as a sign of real progress in head coach Steve Pikiell’s third season in New Brunswick. The Scarlet Knights haven’t finished with a winning record since the 05-06 season when they were still playing in the Big East and haven’t made an NCAA tournament appearance since 90-91 when they were still in the Atlantic 10. While far from a contender in the Big Ten, Rutgers has managed a few quality wins over Ohio State, Nebraska, and Indiana. Like the Hawkeyes, Rutgers is fresh off a victory over Northwestern and looking to jumpstart a successful run to conclude the final month of Big Ten play.
Here are a few key factors to watch for going into Saturday’s game:
1. Can Rutgers find an answer on offense?
Most teams who have matched up against the Hawkeyes this season have been able to definitively answer “yes” to the above question. The Hawkeyes have the lowest defensive rating in the conference and have only one player in Nicholas Baer who allows fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions. Iowa has also allowed its conference opponents to shoot 55.8% on two-point attempts this year, the worst such percentage in the Big Ten. Despite making significant strides on this side of the ball from last season, the Hawkeyes are still winning largely in spite of their defense.
However, Rutgers is hardly a team that is set up to capitalize on Iowa’s defensive weaknesses. The Scarlet Knights have the worst offensive rating and have scored the fewest points per game of any team in the conference. Geo Baker, Rutgers’ second leading scorer, has a field goal percentage of only 35.4%, a number worse than any of the players receiving meaningful minutes for the Hawkeyes. Aside from a recent overtime loss to Illinois, Rutgers has not scored 80+ points in a single conference game.
Watching Iowa’s defense against Rutgers’ offense will finally provide an answer to the question of what happens when a stoppable force meets a movable object. While Iowa has mustered some strong defensive performances in wins over Oregon, Ohio State, and Michigan, they have also allowed mediocre offensive teams like Minnesota, Penn State, and (most recently) Northwestern to have uncharacteristically strong shooting days against them. If Rutgers can work the ball inside to its most well-rounded offensive player in junior forward Eugene Omoruyi and get decent three-point production from players like Peter Kiss and Ron Harper Jr. (both of whom attempt more than three shots from beyond the arc per game and make less than one third of them), they may be able to withstand the hot-shooting Hawkeyes and rely on the supportive home crowd to give them a fighting chance.
2. Can Rutgers take advantage of their length?
Many of the Scarlet Knights’ struggles this season can be attributed to the team’s youth. Rutgers has only one senior in its normal rotation, regularly plays four freshmen over the course of a game, and allocates the bulk of its minutes to underclassmen. Rutgers should continue to grow as a team the more opportunities coach Pikiell has to continue teaching them.
However, Rutgers does have the one thing you can’t teach: size. The average height of a Rutgers player is 6’7 (weighted by minutes played), tying the Scarlet Knights for the tallest team in the conference. Rutgers has four players 6’9 or taller that they work through their rotation, and no player shorter than 6’4 receives regular minutes for the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers’ length manifests itself in a few useful ways. Not only have the Scarlet Knights used their size to help slow down opposing offenses and hold opponents to only 68.5 points-per-game, but they have also developed into an excellent rebounding team during conference playing, pulling down the third-most boards of any team during Big Ten games. Rutgers has been particularly adept at protecting the rim this season, allowing opponents to shoot only 47% from two.
However, Rutgers’ length has done little to improve its perimeter defense. Big Ten opponents have shot nearly 38% from deep against the Scarlet Knights, and against a team like Iowa that can play entire lineups composed of credible three-point shooters, this defensive deficiency could be a death sentence. Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp have both been particularly hot from beyond the arc of late, shooting 60% or better in each of their last two games. If Rutgers is able to use its length to stifle Iowa’s strong interior offensive game, Iowa’s excellent three-point shooting should serve as a sufficient response.
3. Can Luka Garza get his swagger back?
Luka Garza had been on an absolute offensive tear for the majority of conference play. Garza scored 20+ points in four consecutive contests from January 16-27 and saw this streak come to an end after scoring ONLY 19 points in a win over Michigan. Garza has actually averaged more points against Big Ten opponents (14.0 per game) than he has over the full course of the season (13.8 per game), in large part because the talented sophomore is finally healthy after dealing with the offseason removal of an abdominal cyst and an ill-timed ankle injury in December.
Such a torrid scoring pace was bound to slow down at some point, and Garza has experienced this over the past two games in which he has totaled a combined four points, six rebounds, and nine fouls. Some of Garza’s scoring woes the past week can be attributed the foul-induced minutes restrictions, but Garza hasn’t been particularly efficient when he has been on the court, shooting only 1-8 against Indiana and Northwestern. Garza has also only hit one three-pointer thus far during the month of February.
Garza is a tenacious and skilled inside-scorer, but his role as a stretch five in Iowa’s offense may be even more important against Rutgers, as it is difficult to imagine their starting center Shaquille Doorson being particularly comfortable guarding him on the perimeter. A return to form for Garza would not only help Iowa immensely in its game against Rutgers but would be an excellent sign for the remainder of Iowa’s Big Ten schedule.