He’s BAAAAACCCCKKKK! After spending three and a half seasons coaching the Chicago Bulls, former Iowa State basketball legend Fred Hoiberg is once again scheduled to match up against his longtime rival the Iowa Hawkeyes, this time as the coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Iowa fans can be forgiven if Hoiberg’s return to the college ranks doesn’t fill them with excitement. The Mayor has spent his career tormenting the Hawkeyes, winning three of four games against Iowa as a player and four of five during his tenure as the Cyclones’ head coach.
The Iowa faithful have plenty of reasons to believe things might be different this year, however. Not only has Iowa coach Fran McCaffery assembled a scrappy and surprisingly talented squad, but Hoiberg enters Tuesday night’s game with the worst team he’s had during his career as a college coach. The Huskers are languishing at 6-8 on the season, and losses to mid-major teams like UC-Riverside, Southern Utah, and George Mason have left Nebraska fans with a sour taste in their mouth in year one of the Hoiberg era. Still, rivalry games frequently bring out the best in teams, and as former Husker Bakari Evelyn can attest, the crowd in Lincoln should be highly motivated to play spoiler to the visiting Hawkeyes.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Tuesday night’s game:
1. Can Iowa limit its turnovers?
To Iowa’s credit, ball security has not ALWAYS been a problem for the Hawkeyes this year. Iowa has only committed 168 turnovers on the year, which might sound high, but actually puts them in the top 15% of D1 basketball teams in terms of fewest give-aways on the season. Connor McCaffery has been particularly effective at facilitating without forcing the issue, averaging nearly four assists to less than one turnover on the season from his position as Iowa’s point forward.
But when Iowa does struggle with turnovers it has had a devastating impact on the performance of the team this season. Iowa gave up 15 turnovers compared to only 16 recorded assists during Saturday’s loss to Penn State, committed 19 turnovers in a humiliating home loss to DePaul, and the Hawkeyes’ 24 turnovers against Cincinnati nearly cost them the game. Bakari Evelyn and Joe Toussaint have both to be very turnover prone at times this season, and the bullet passes between defenders to Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener in the post have frequently resulted in the ball landing out of bounds.
Iowa’s offense has been dynamic , but even the best scoring attacks can be disrupted by foolish giveaways. Nebraska’s defense has struggled this season (they surrender over 75 points per game and have twice allowed opponents to score 90+), but has recorded the second most steals in the conference behind only Penn State. Nebraska will attempt to play an aggressive brand of defense against the Hawkeyes and try to force mistakes by young ballhandlers such as Toussaint and Joe Wieskamp, so the Hawkeyes will need to prioritize ball security. Iowa should be able to score on the Huskers without much difficulty, but that will require them to avoid turnovers so they can muster shot attempts in the first place.
2. Can Iowa weather its injuries and illnesses?
As of this writing, Iowa has been non-committal on freshman shooting guard CJ Fredrick’s status for Tuesday night’s game. The dynamic scorer sat out the second half of Iowa’s loss to Penn State due to complications from a lingering ankle injury which managed to slow him down significantly even when he was on the court.
Fredrick has been a wonderful surprise for the Hawkeyes this year, and Iowa will really feel his absence if he is forced to sit out or continues to be hampered by his injury. Fredrick has established himself as Iowa’s most accurate shooter, making over 58% of his two-point attempts and shooting a scintillating 50% from beyond the arc. But Fredrick’s importance to the Hawkeyes goes beyond his individual contributions, as he is indispensable for the role which he plays in Iowa’s eight-man rotation. Coach McCaffery summarized this perfectly in his post-game remarks, stating that Fredrick’s absence, “puts a lot of pressure on Toussaint, Connor, and Bakari…”It really puts a lot of pressure on Wieskamp to score the ball.”
To make matters worse, suddenly Connor McCaffery’s status may also be in question as the sophomore continues to suffer from the illness that slowed him against PSU. As previously mentioned, McCaffery is a real asset as a ballhandler while also playing an aggressive brand of defense while showing great improvement as a shooter.
The absence of CJ or Connor would force McCaffery to either play with only seven men in his rotation or to give some of F minutes to little-used walk-on Riley Till. The absence of both would force Till to play some of the biggest minutes of hsi career. Furthermore, well as Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp are playing, McCaffery should be weary of wearing them down too early in the season, especially considering the amount of physical punishment Garza takes in the post on a nightly basis. Whether Fredrick and McCaffery suit up on Tuesday, and how big a contribution Iowa can reasonably expect from them if they do, will be a major storyline that warrants paying attention to.
3. Can Iowa limit Nebraska’s production from beyond the arc?
Iowa’s improvement over the past few years in taking away the three point shot on defense has been truly remarkable. The Hawkeyes are only two years removed from letting Big Ten opponents shoot an otherworldly 43% from three on the season, yet have allowed opponents to connect on only 30.7% of their outside shots through fourteen games this year. Iowa’s guards have become much better at closing out on three point shooters, and the Hawkeyes have dramatically improved their transition defense and surrender significantly fewer open corner threes on the fast break.
Iowa will have plenty of chances to flex its newfound competency defending the three against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers trail only Penn State in total three pointers attempted on the season, and average 25 perimeter shots per game. But while Hoiberg’s team has proven plenty willing to shoot from beyond the arc, they haven’t shown themselves to be particularly proficient at these shots. Sophomore point guard Cameron Mack is dangerous from beyond the arc, as is Icelandic sixth man Thorir Thorbjarnarson. But the Huskers have connected on fewer than a third of their three point attempts this year, and if Iowa can continue to avoid breakdowns in its perimeter defense, they should have a chance to drive this percentage down even further.
Hoiberg’s Husker team is less talented than McCaffery’s Hawkeye squad, even if Iowa is without one of Connor or CJ. The Huskers are also undersized in the post compared to Iowa (the tallest player on their roster is the 6-9 French freshman Yvan Ouedraogo), and they could struggle to score consistently against Luka Garza’s much-improved post defense. Nebraska’s best chance to get a win is to repeatedly connect on its outside shots, and Iowa’s ability to stop the Huskers from three will go a long way towards helping them achieve victory.