The Iowa men’s basketball team has shown a real talent for winning close games in spectacular fashion this season, but it turns out the best way to defend against the Hawkeyes’ late-game heroics is to never let the game be competitive in the first place. After two consecutive blowout losses to Ohio State and Rutgers, the same Iowa program that was riding high only a few weeks ago is now in serious danger of another late-season collapse. Fran McCaffery deserves a great deal of credit for righting the ship after the disastrous 2017-18 season, but with Iowa’s head coach serving the second and final game of his suspension for his unsportsmanlike post-game behavior towards an official, the Hawkeyes will need to look elsewhere for stability if they expect to rediscover their winning ways in Thursday night’s game against Wisconsin (20-9, 12-6).
Enter Kirk Speraw. Fran McCaffery’s replacement on the sideline this week has 17 years of head coaching experience, having led the University of Central Florida to four NCAA tournament appearances and successfully coached Iowa to a blowout victory over Northwestern in 2014. Speraw, himself a former Hawkeye player under venerated coach Lute Olson, is no stranger to Iowa basketball’s rivalry with Wisconsin. The Badgers managed to defeat the Hawkeyes 72-66 during the first meeting of these teams in December, and Speraw will have to coax his team into playing a much more inspired brand of basketball than they have over the past two games for the Hawkeyes to get their revenge as they travel to the Kohl Center.
Here are a few key factors to watch for heading into Thursday’s game:
1. Can Iowa rediscover its offensive firepower?
While Iowa’s defense has shown improvement from last season, the Hawkeye offense has been the real catalyst behind their success. Iowa boasts the 11th highest adjusted offensive efficiency rating in college basketball this season and leads the Big Ten in points-per-game against conference opponents (75.8). However, the Hawkeye offense has fallen off a cliff of late. Iowa has scored below its season average of 79.7 ppg in each of its last five contests, has consistently shot below its season average from both the field and from three, and has been beset by an alarming rash of turnovers resulting in easy baskets for opposing teams.
Iowa’s loss against Rutgers was a particularly concerning indictment of the state of the Hawkeye offense. While recent losses against Maryland and Ohio State saw the Hawkeyes getting a number of open looks on which they simply failed to capitalize, the Scarlet Knights so effectively stymied Iowa’s offensive rhythm that they seemed virtually incapable of finding open shots in the first place. Iowa’s offensive strategy was often difficult to identify during large stretches of its game against Rutgers, and whatever game plan the Hawkeyes intended to deploy against the Scarlet Knights was often replaced with aimless passes around the perimeter, a hesitance to probe into the paint, and a tendency to settle for poor shots. Iowa shot only 35.7% from the field, a percentage which was low in part due to their putrid 8-29 shooting performance from beyond the arc. Even the free throw line, which has so often been a source of stability for the Hawkeyes, proved unforgiving; Iowa shot only 66.7% from the charity stripe on the evening.
Unfortunately, the Badger defense is not likely to make things easier on the Hawkeyes. Wisconsin has held its opponents to 61.6 ppg (the 11th lowest rating in college basketball) and have allowed fewer free throws to conference opponents than any team in the Big Ten. Furthermore, the Badgers’ remarkable turnover rate (no team has committed fewer turnovers on the season than Wisconsin’s 266) helps them limit the number of easy fast-break opportunities their opponents have. Wisconsin held the Hawkeyes to 66 points on 39% shooting in their first matchup, and Iowa will need to significantly improve on these numbers to have a chance at defeating the Badgers on the road.
2. Can Iowa contain Ethan Happ without compromising its perimeter defense?
The key to understanding Wisconsin’s offensive success starts and ends with senior forward Ethan Happ. A legitimate player of the year candidate, Happ has been beating double teams all season and dominating in the post, leading the Badgers in points (17.4) and assists (4.7) per game.
Iowa’s defense against Happ received considerable praise during the Hawkeyes’ first matchup against the Badgers. Iowa frequently brought help defenders to force Happ into giving up the ball or taking a tightly contested shot, which held the Badger big man to only four points at the half. However, this narrative of defensive success is slightly misleading; while Happ was limited to 13 points on only ten shots, Iowa’s double-teams allowed Happ to kick the ball back out to open teammates on the perimeter, allowing Wisconsin to take a number of poorly-contested three-pointers.
Happ’s ability to effectively pass his way out of double-teams has not only been the leading driver of his high assist rate but has also buoyed his teammates three-point shooting numbers on the season. While D’Mitrik Trice did most of Wisconsin’s damage from beyond the arc in their first matchup against Iowa, Wisconsin has four other regular contributors in Brevin Pritzl, Brad Davidson, Nate Reuvers, and Kobe King who are all shooting at least 35% from three on the season. Wisconsin’s perimeter players are excellent shooters, but none of them are particularly skilled at creating their own shots, particularly on the perimeter. Iowa may be tempted to double-team Ethan Happ to stop the presumptive All-American from feasting on Iowa’s poor interior defense, but they must do so judiciously to limit the number of easy three point attempts the Badgers are able to get.
Furthermore, despite his prowess on the low block, Happ is an abysmal free throw shooter and has made only 45% of his attempts on the year. Considering that Happ is statistically more likely to make a two-point shot from the field (54.4%) than he is a free throw, Iowa shouldn’t be afraid to employ a “Hack-A-Happ” strategy and force Wisconsin’s star to beat the Hawkeyes from the charity stripe. While Iowa lacks the front-court depth of a team that could normally execute such a strategy, the Hawkeyes could press walk-ons like Riley Till and Michael Baer into the line of duty to disrupt the Badgers’ offensive rhythm and play aggressive defense on Happ that will either result in a foul or, if uncalled, may be the best shot the Hawkeye have at keeping Happ from picking the Hawkeyes apart on the interior.
3. Can Iowa best the Badgers on the boards?
Ethan Happ is an excellent rebounder (his 10.1 rebounds-per-game rank third in the conference), but the rest of his teammates are severely lacking of his talent on the boards. Senior guard Khalil Iverson is the only other Badger to average even 4.0 rebounds-per-game, and Wisconsin ranks a lowly 254th in the nation in total rebounds. Offensive rebounds have been a particular point of difficulty for the Badgers; they rank 333rd out of 353 division one basketball programs in this metric and have pulled down a conference low 131 offensive boards against Big Ten opponents.
While the Hawkeyes did manage to out-rebound the Badgers 38-32 in their first meeting, they should be looking to improve on this statistic in Thursday night’s game. Multiple conference opponents have out-rebounded Wisconsin by double-digits so far this season, including a +13 rebound margin posted by Minnesota in a losing effort last month. Tyler Cook is Iowa’s most gifted rebounder, but Joe Wieskamp and Nicholas Baer may provide the best hope for Iowa to dominate on the glass, as their tenacity and surprising rebounding acumen may help them to consistently beat their less-gifted counterparts for rebounds that are up-for-grabs. If Iowa’s poor shooting does continue, getting and capitalizing on second-chance opportunities will be absolutely essential for the Hawkeyes to be able to stay in the game.