It feels like a lifetime ago when the Iowa Hawkeyes (21-9, 10-9) beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers (15-15, 5-14) in the highest scoring game of Iowa’s conference season, 93-84. A lot has changed since then: Iowa has put their fans through a roller coaster of emotions and Nebraska could never find the necessary footing to turn last year’s 13-5 conference mark into a tournament team.
The January win was arguably Iowa’s most well-rounded of the season, as all five starters reached double digit scoring, with Jordan Bohannon pacing the bunch with 25 points on 5 threes and 10 free throws. The Husker who gave Iowa the most fits, Isaac Copeland, has missed the last 10 games after suffering a season-ending injury. James Palmer and Isaiah Roby had 20 and 17, with Roby’s coming on just 10 shots.
Alongside Copeland, Palmer and Glynn Watson, Jr. will celebrate senior day as Nebraska’s leading available scorers at 18.9 and 12.7 points per gamer respectively. As a team, they’ve averaged 65.5 points in conference and have scored over 70 points just three times since the first matchup. All three of those games have come in their last four; all were losses.
Nebraska’s fourth and final senior, Tanner Borchardt took over Copeland’s starting role and hasn’t been able to match Copeland’s offense. His highest point total was 12 against Illinois, in a game where he snagged a season-high 11 offensive boards (18 total). Isaiah Roby is the Huskers’ leading rebounder at 7.1 a game and he averages 11.1 points per game. Though he’s an incredibly streaky player, he can really fill up a stat sheet offensively and defensively as their leading shot blocker and has the second most steals on the season.
So what do the Hawkeyes need to do on Sunday to build some momentum for the tournaments?
Play with Energy
It is probably unfair to conflate energy and emotion but the two were devoid in the pair of games without Fran McCaffery on the sidelines, especially against Wisconsin. Against the Badgers, Iowa was especially quiet on the boards and were out rebounded 46-29 including just a 17.1% offensive rebounding rate, the Hawks’ third lowest on the season. Now, Iowa doesn’t need to turn into Michigan State on the boards and the balance between hitting the offensive glass and getting back in transition is a fair debate to have, but what happened in Madison cannot happen again.
Offensively, energy can translate in a couple different ways: transition and overall execution. Of late, Iowa has allowed the bumps and bruises (and jersey grabbing) of the Big Ten season to accumulate and it has translated to stagnate offense. The last four losses have been among Iowa’s worst per possession but have also come against top 40 defenses. Nebraska has the worst defense in the Big Ten, save Iowa and Illinois, according to KenPom. If there’s a team Iowa can get the offensive energy back against, it’s the Huskers
Take the Right Shots
If Iowa is playing with the requisite energy on offense, this should come easily. Tyler Cook, Luka Garza, and even Ryan Kriener should be able to make hay in the paint. In the first matchup with Nebraska, the three combined for 11/18 and went to the line 14 times. In turn, it should open up the three for Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, and Isaiah Moss. Despite a rough 5 games (combined 21/69 from three for 30.4%), the Hawkeye trio each rank in the top 10 for three point shooting in conference play. They can make these shots!
It’s probably time to get throw away every other three point attempt, save Nicholas Baer. Outside of those four, the rest of the team is a very, very, very cold 21.6%. To frame it another way, Hawkeye non-shooters have made just 19 threes in the conference season which is still six less than Baer has made during that time period.
Carry over the Defense
Hot take: Iowa’s defense was good against Wisconsin. Even though the Badgers snagged 15 offensive rebounds, they averaged just .94 points per possession. Excluding garbage time, it was still less than a point per possession. That’d be a winning number against anyone not Wisconsin.
Obviously there are things Iowa needs to change from Thursday. Defensive possessions aren’t over until you get the board. The closeouts were not well-contained (you don’t have to jump, Joe!). But the zone largely did its job. Against a team like Nebraska, who is shooting 33.2% from deep (231st in the country), the zone should work. Of course, Hawkeyes will still need to plant their rear end on someone to box out, but with just one player over 6’8”, (bench big Brady Heiman who hasn’t played more than 11 minutes in conference) rebounding should be less of a problem.
At the beginning of the season, I predicted this game would be the Hawkeyes’ most important game as a “de facto NCAA tournament elimination game” which would help them “squeak into the First Four.” While the second piece of it is hopefully not true, it remains Iowa’s most important game. With the right energy and passion, a positive result on Sunday can go a long way to helping this team close out 2019 strong.