There are no two teams in the Big Ten riding higher after last weekend than the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Indiana Hoosiers. Iowa and Indiana both managed to pull upsets over one of the conference’s top teams with their respective wins over Michigan and Michigan State. Both teams also put an end to a losing streak in the process (Iowa’s streak was at two games, while the Hoosiers had been losers of seven straight). Fans frequently worry about a let-down effect producing lifeless performances in their team’s first game after an emotional, unexpected win, and that concern certainly applies to both teams in their upcoming contests.
Both Iowa and Indiana will suit up for the first time since their big weekend wins when they face one another Thursday evening at Assembly Hall in a game that suddenly carries both an elevated profile and heightened stakes. Both teams find themselves firmly on the national radar after what were easily their best wins of the season so far. And while the Hawkeyes look to claw their way up the Big Ten standings, the Hoosiers will attempt to extract themselves from the NCAA tournament bubble and tally another quality win to enhance their selection case for March. Iowa and Indiana have now shown their fan bases exactly what they are capable of when they play at their best, and both teams now face the pressure of living up to these elevated expectations.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Thursday’s game:
1. Can Iowa make Romeo Langford play like a freshman?
Freshman sensation Romeo Langford’s decision to commit to the in-state Hoosiers instantly elevated the expectations for Archie Miller’s second season in Bloomington, as Langford was widely expected to be a lottery pick in the 2019-20 NBA draft. Langford’s freshman season has been somewhat uneven; while his athleticism has certainly been on full display and his ability to get to the rim has made him the driving force behind the Hoosier offense, he has had his share of struggles on defense and his poor three point shooting percentage (24%) has contributed to the Hoosiers ranking last in the Big Ten in three point shooting efficiency during conference play (28%). By normal freshman standards Langford has proven himself to be a star. But when asked to carry his team, he has frequently found the load too heavy to bear.
However, on the occasions when Langford can elevate his play to the level of a seasoned veteran, the Hoosiers become a much more difficult offense to contend with. Indiana’s three biggest wins this season came against Michigan State, Louisville, and Marquette, and Langford excelled in each of these contests, scoring 19, 21, and 22 points respectively. In particular, Langford’s ability to hit from three the way he did against Michigan State (40% shooting from beyond the arc) creates much greater spacing in the Hoosier offense and forces defenders to guard him more tightly on the perimeter, making them more vulnerable to Langford attacking off the dribble.
Iowa’s guards will likely play off Langford a bit when he has the ball on the perimeter to help account for his driving ability since the freshman has quick first step that is capable of giving Hawkeye defenders some problems. Whether Langford is willing and able to make Iowa pay from deep will have a significant impact on the Hoosiers’ ability to keep pace with the Hawkeye offense. If Iowa can prevent Langford from getting to the rim and force him to make mistakes with the ball (his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4:2.2 is hardly anything to write home about), they should be able to limit the damage the talented Hoosier can inflict. The Hawkeye defense played surprisingly well against the Wolverines, and their ability to replicate that performance against the Hoosiers starts with their ability to contain Langford.
2. Can Iowa win the battle inside?
Arguably the most impressive part of Indiana’s victory over Michigan State was their ability to best the Spartans on the boards. Despite ranking 8th in the country in total rebounds, the Spartans found themselves beaten on both the offensive (20 rebounds to 14) and defensive glass (28 rebounds to 26). This feat was particularly improbable considering Indiana’s top rebounder Juwan Morgan (7.9 rebounds-per-game) played only 13 minutes due to a shoulder injury that is not expected to impact his status for Thursday night’s game. In Morgan’s stead, 6-7 forward Justin Smith produced a gutsy 13 point, 10 rebound, 3 block performance against a formidable Spartan front line.
Indiana’s poor three-point shooting means the Hoosiers have to rely heavily on interior scoring to generate meaningful offense. Morgan is Indiana’s most consistent weapon inside the paint; he averages 15.9 points-per-game on nearly 65% shooting from two, and the senior forward can deploy an array of post moves that will make him a difficult cover for the Hawkeye big men.
One major advantage that Iowa’s frontcourt does have over the Hoosiers is height. While Indiana does have a pair of 6-10 bench contributors in Evan Fitzner and De’Ron Davis, Morgan is the tallest player in the Hoosiers’ starting lineup at 6-8. Indiana may rotate one of its true centers in if Luka Garza proves too much for the smaller Crimson players to handle, but Iowa should seek to capitalize on its initial size advantage by feeding the ball into the post early and often. Garza has been on an absolute tear offensively of late, averaging 21.7 points-per-game over his last five outings and taking advantage of the outsize attention paid by opposing defenses to his frontcourt running mate Cook. Strong performances by Garza and the Iowa frontcourt on both sides of the ball would go a long way towards improving their chances to escape Assembly Hall with a win.
3. Is Iowa ready to win in a hostile road environment?
The Hawkeyes should be thanking the scheduling gods; Iowa’s February 6th game against Indiana will be only their sixth true road contest of the season thus far. Unfortunately, Iowa has struggled when venturing into hostile territory, compiling a 2-3 road record and surrendering 80+ points in all but one of these games. Coincidentally, Indiana has done an excellent job of protecting its home court this season, dropping only two games in Bloomington.
Assembly Hall is one of the true cathedrals of college basketball and has historically been a house of horrors for any and all visitors who enter it. Iowa has frequently seen its defense regress during road games and has struggled to weather any scoring droughts it encounters in these contests. The Hoosiers, on the other hand, have proven to be a remarkably resilient team in the face of adversity, and have overcome deficits of at least five points in nine of their thirteen wins in 2018-19. While Indiana has proven itself capable of rallying after bouts of poor play, it remains to be seen whether Iowa can accomplish such a feat against a tournament-quality opponent on the road. If the Hoosiers can capture the magic they displayed in their road victory against Michigan State, the Hawkeyes will likely have to do just that in order to win.