The expansion of the Big Ten has brought countless benefits to the league, but one of its major downsides has been the deemphasizing of traditional rivalries. With more teams to play during every conference season, opponents who traditionally faced one another twice a year are often reduced to a mere one-game season series.
The series between Iowa and Wisconsin seems to have been hit hard by this trend of late. While the Hawkeyes and Badgers played at least twice a year nearly every season before the most recent round of expansion, the two rivals have been limited to only one annual matchup in four of the past five years. Since Iowa will likely only get one opportunity to play the Badgers this year, they will need to bring their A-game to ensure that they can get their revenge after posting an 0-2 record against Wisconsin last season.
Here are few key factors to watch for in tonight’s game:
1. Can Iowa solve the talented Wisconsin defense?
Iowa’s offense remains one of the most explosive scoring attacks in college basketball, but it will face a difficult challenge tonight. The Badger defense has proven its mettle countless times during conference play, holding Ohio State to 57 points, Maryland to 54, and, most impressively, limiting the explosive Penn State offense to a mere 49 points in a road win. No team has scored more than 72 on the Badgers this season, and opponents average a mere 61.1 points against them.
Wisconsin’s defense is particularly stout in the interior, where they allow opponents to shoot at only a shade above 45%. 6-11 Center Nate Reuvers has proven that he can protect the rim, and averages over two blocks per game. Meanwhile, forwards Aleem Ford, Tyler Wahl and Micah Potter are all tenacious and fundamentally sound defenders in the paint who do a great job harassing opposing big men. Potter, an Ohio State transfer who missed Wisconsin’s first ten games this season due to issues with the NCAA, has had a particularly buoyant impact on the Badger defense since being added into the rotation.
Iowa’s offense has run through the low post this season, with Luka Garza serving as the offensive catalyst even as he receives the bulk of the attention from opposing defenses. While few defenses have been able to keep the talented center in check, the Badgers have shown a knack for defending the post well without fouling – in fact, opponents have attempted only 274 free throws on the season, the 27th lowest number of attempts allowed by one team in college basketball. Garza and his fellow post scorer Ryan Kriener will need to dig deep into the bag of offensive tricks to score consistently on the block against this defense.
Iowa’s best opportunity for points may actually come on the perimeter. While Wisconsin’s opponents shoot well below their season average from inside the arc, they often exceed that average from beyond it, as opposing teams have drained over 34% of their shots from deep on the year. If Iowa’s bigs find it difficult to score over two or three defenders in the post, they will need to be smart about kicking it outside and allowing marksmen like CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp to punish the Badgers for collapsing down low.
Iowa managed to solve one great defensive scheme against Rutgers, dropping a season high 85 points on the vaunted Scarlet Knights. To extend its winning streak to five games, Iowa will need to do the same against the Badgers. Wisconsin is 1-4 against opponents who score 69+ points on them this season, so if Iowa can even approach its season average of 80.2 PPG, they should have a good chance to win.
2. Can Iowa tighten up its defense?
Wisconsin isn’t the only team who will need to consistently get stops in order to exit Carver Hawkeye Arena victorious tonight. While the Badgers offense is far from elite (Wisconsin has the 300th-ranked scoring offense in college basketball and a team field goal percentage of only 42.3%), the Hawkeye defense has suffered something of a backslide after two great performances against Northwestern and Maryland. Iowa has surrendered over 80 points against each of their last two opponents and allowed an offensively-challenged Rutgers team to score their most points in conference play so far this season.
Wisconsin’s offense has never been complicated: feed their talented big man in the post (a role currently being played by Reuvers) and allow him to score against single coverage or kick it out to an open set-shooter on the perimeter. Iowa’s defense tends to struggle against players who can create their own shots, which is why players like Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr., San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn, and DePaul’s Paul Reed all managed to score so successfully against them. Wisconsin’s wings aren’t elite shot creators, but they have players who can make open shots if given the chance. Kobe King is one name to watch – if he can beat Iowa’s guards off the dribble and consistently get to the rim, Wisconsin has a chance to outperform their offensive expectations.
3. Which team can best control the pace of the game?
The rest of the article has danced around this central question, but it’s worth addressing head-on. Iowa and Wisconsin play such dramatically different styles of basketball that the two teams often appear to be playing the game in different decades. A quick glance at the NCAA’s possessions-per-game ranking reveals the stark differences between the two teams; while Iowa plays at an above-average pace, Wisconsin’s offense moves at glacial speeds, and the Badgers average the fifth-fewest possessions of all Division One teams.
Teams that play Wisconsin’s style of basketball require opponents to play extremely efficiently in order to beat them. Each of your offensive possessions matters more since you are likely to have fewer of them than you are used to, while the Badgers’ methodical nature on offense can lull opposing defenses to sleep. Iowa will try to push the pace of the game while the Badgers attempt to slow it, which usually results in an interesting tug-of-war throughout the contest. Iowa must be especially careful to limit its turnovers, as giveaways can create rare high-efficiency fast-break opportunities for the Badgers while also wasting an opportunity to score on offense.
Can the Hawkeyes succeed in speeding up the game to fit their usual style of play, or will they be able to adapt to Wisconsin’s pace and keep their offense humming despite having fewer possessions? The answer to this question will likely determine which team gets bragging rights for the rest of the year.