After spending an unreasonable chunk of the early season on the road, Iowa basketball can finally unpack its bags. The Hawkeyes kick off the first of a three-game homestand on Friday when they play host to the 19th ranked Michigan Wolverines. This is the second matchup between the two squads, as Michigan defeated Iowa in a 103-91 shootout in Ann Arbor on December 6th.
Iowa and Michigan are both very different teams than they were during their first meeting despite the recency of that contest. Both teams have suffered serious injuries to important contributors, with Iowa being forced to play without Jordan Bohannon for the remainder of the season while Michigan has been without star forward Isaiah Livers for the past four games (Livers has not been officially ruled out against Iowa, but with head coach Juwan Howard saying he’s, “praying day to day” for his recovery, the prognosis doesn’t sound great). And while Michigan has lost two of its past three games, the Hawkeyes have been surging over the past week with double-digit victories over #12 Maryland and Northwestern. Despite Michigan’s recent struggles, the Wolverines remain an extremely tough out for any opponent, and the Hawkeyes will have to play inspired basketball to extend their winning streak to three games.
Here are a few key factors to watch for heading into Friday night’s game:
1. Can Luka Garza continue his dominant run?
Luka Garza was just named to Sporting News’ midseason All-American team, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who watched the tenacious center play against Northwestern on Tuesday night. Despite struggling with foul trouble and being forced to sit out much of the early second half, Garza was an absolute force on offense, shooting over 70% from the field, draining two-thirds of his three point attempts, and making over 80% of his free throws, an area in which he has inexplicably regressed this season. His clinical 27-point performance was precisely what Iowa fans have come to expect from Garza, a walking double-double, one of the most improved players in the country, and the closest thing to the game-wrecking centers of old in college basketball today.
As much as Garza’s amazing play has contributed to Iowa’s victories this season, his most impressive performance came in the Hawkeyes’ loss to Michigan. Luka was an unstoppable offensive force against the Wolverines, dropping 44 points on the Wolverines despite not making any of his three-point attempts. While Iowa failed to overcome its worst defensive performance of the season that night, Garza’s spectacular play put the entire country on notice as to what he was capable of doing on the low block, while also exposing the Wolverines’ biggest defensive weakness.
Michigan has struggled mightily when tasked when defending talented offensive big men. Over the past three games, the maize and blue have surrendered 20 points and 11 rebounds to Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman, 36 points and 20(?!) rebounds to Purdue’s Trevion Williams, and 30 points on 13-18 shooting from Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu. Even in Michigan’s signature win against Gonzaga, the Wolverines still gave up 20 points on 64% shooting to star big man Killian Tillie. Michigan center Jon Teske is a solid enough defender on his own, but Michigan almost never sends double-teams in the paint, forcing him to contend with opposing centers all on his own. Garza, who has suffered through constant waves of help defenders the entire season, has to be salivating at this prospect.
Given Michigan’s recent struggles defending the post and considering what Garza did to them in December, it wouldn’t be a shock if Juwan Howard decided to give Teske some help to try and contain Iowa’s midseason All-American. If not, Luka should have plenty of opportunities to put points on the board for his team. If Garza can continue his efficient shooting and build off Tuesday’s strong performance from the free throw line, Iowa will have an excellent shot to pull the upset.
2. Which team can win the battle from beyond the arc?
As much as Michigan struggles to defend the post, they excel at locking down the perimeter and denying their opponents open looks from three. The Wolverines have allowed the fewest made three-pointers during conference play this season while allowing Big Ten opponents to shoot only 27.6% from range. This could pose a problem for Iowa, a team that is so efficient from three that they rank fourth in Big Ten three-point percentage despite going 4-33 against Nebraska last week. Michigan certainly held the Hawkeyes in check from deep during their first matchup; Iowa shot only 20% from beyond the arc, and that was with three-point ace Jordan Bohannon in the lineup.
Michigan is a tough team to get a read on when it comes to three-point shooting. On one hand, the Wolverines are shooting an excellent 36.3% from deep on the season (Iowa is at 35.3%) and Eli Brooks, David Dejulius, and Franz Wagner all are legitimate threats to hit from range. On the other hand, Michigan’s shooting has dropped off considerably during conference play to 28.7%. The biggest cause of this decline has been the injury to Livers, a 50% shooter from three whose elite shooting performances helped carry Michigan to big wins over Creighton and Gonzaga this season.
When Michigan is hitting its shots, its offense is extremely dangerous. The Wolverines can run a great inside-out game with Teske, have fantastic athletes who can threaten Iowa’s defenders off the dribble, and their 103-point outing against the Hawkeyes proved exactly what they’re capable of offensively. When they aren’t hitting shots, they score 43 points against Louisville, which is exactly what Michigan did one game prior to their previous bout with Iowa. If the Hawkeyes can outshoot the Wolverines from deep, they stand a real chance to avenge their early-season loss.
3. Can Joe Toussaint regain his form?
Iowa’s offense was lifted on Tuesday night by the return of CJ Fredrick from injury. The talented freshman gave Northwestern another offensive threat to account for, improved Iowa’s spacing on offense, and made a few big three-pointers which sparked the Hawkeye offense in the first half. Fredrick showed some rust early, but quickly found his legs again as he adjusted to the speed of Big Ten basketball.
Fellow Hawkeye freshman Joe Toussaint has spent the past few games looking like a player in need of a similar adjustment. Despite being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week less than two weeks ago, Toussaint’s play has absolutely cratered of late. Toussaint’s stats of the past two games: four points (1-9 shooting) and five turnovers over 32 minutes played. Yikes.
Toussaint’s talent is undeniable, but his elite quickness sometimes causes him to play out of control, resulting in avoidable mistakes and long trips to the bench. Bakari Evelyn had maybe his best game as a Hawkeye in relief of Toussaint against Northwestern, but Iowa needs the gifted freshman to play beyond his years to have a chance against top-tier competition.
Toussaint will face a baptism by fire against the Wolverines and their senior point guard Zavier Simpson. An absolute wizard with the ball and one of the best floor generals in college basketball, Simpson controls the flow of the game as masterfully as any player in the past decade. Simpson remains a pass-first player, but his offense has dramatically improved this season, and he is now a much bigger threat to beat opponents with his jump shot in addition to attacking the lane. Simpson is also a crafty defender who relies on his toughness and basketball acumen to compensate for his lack of size and strength. A member of the Big Ten’s 2019 All-Defense Team, Simpson will be prepared to give Toussaint all he can handle and then some.
Iowa’s gifted freshman has the athleticism, toughness, and ball skills to propel the Hawkeyes to victory, just as his youth and inexperience could allow Simpson to dominate Iowa on both sides of the ball. For the Hawkeyes to pull the upset against Michigan, Iowa needs Joe Toussaint to find a way to play within himself without losing that tantalizing spark that makes him a legitimate candidate to be the Big Ten’s next Zavier Simpson.