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Hawkeyes take on Purdue to begin Big Ten play

The Hawks have struggled against the Boilermakers of late, will they be able to turn the tide?

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The #4 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-1, 0-0) are coming off their first loss of the season. While there’s no shame in losing to #1 Gonzaga, it’s important for the Hawks to limit the damage caused on Saturday to just one game. They’re playing a Purdue Boilermakers (6-2, 1-0) who’s had their way with Iowa the last couple years and well-positioned to give them another L. Boy would that be disappointing.

Anyways, this is Matt Painter’s 16th year leading the black and old gold (yeah they technically have the same color names despite Iowa’s being a yellow & Purdue’s being a khaki) and he’s put together quite a run - a couple shared regular season Big Ten titles, a conference tournament title, a handful of sweet 16s - without ever getting over the hump into the Final Four. 2019 was the closest they’ve come and boy was that Dallas watch party (RIP British Beverage Company) a sad place to be.

Turning the calendar forward to 2020, Purdue had a weird bit of turnover as there were unexpected, though not necessarily shocking. transfers by Matt Haarms & Nojel Eastern. The Boilers have only gone and found themselves another foreign seven-footer to backfill Haarms alongside Trevion Williams (Zach Edey) and a trio of other freshmen wings to fill in gaps by those two and departing seniors Jahaad Proctor & Hawkeye killer Evan Boudreaux.

On their resume, they’ve taken down Ohio State but have losses to a solid Clemson squad and less solid Miami (FL) team. The rest of their six wins are primarily regional flotsam, including Notre Dame. KenPom likes them (ranked 26th), and their stats are more offensively oriented than the typical Painter-led squad with the #20 offense and the #36 defense, though Purdue offenses have been much stronger since the mid-2010s.

Three guys

Trevion Williams (F, 6’10”, 265 lbs): Purdue’s second leading scorer (13.8 points) and leading rebounder (9.8 points) also averages 2.9 assists and will be the first guy to try his hand at guarding Luka Garza. While his shooting percentage is just 50%, he rebounds 18% of Purdue’s errant shots while he is on the court, good for 11th in the country according to KenPom. Considering Iowa’s biggest gap right now is defensive rebounding (they allow a higher percentage of offensive rebounds than Purdue has gathered and Purdue is 36th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage), Williams is the number one guy for Iowa to keep off the glass to prevent easy putbacks.

Edey is even more difficult defending off the glass, as he is much better at converting around the rim. Per Synergy, on 11 “putback” possessions, he’s 6/6 from the field and scored 15 points when accounting for free throws.

Sasha Stefanovic (G, 6’5”, 200 lbs): I was genuinely blown away when I realized “Splasha” is just a junior. It feels like he’s been around 5eva. Anyways, the shooter has absolutely torched Iowa in his three games, going 8/16 from deep. His season has started as if it was doused in jet fuel as he’s 26/50 from deep, well above his already good career percentage of 41%. A downright Bawinkelian 89% of his shot attempts have come from deep this season.

Please guard him.

Brandon Newman (G, 6’5”, 195 lbs): The 2019 Mr. Basketball runner up in Indiana sat out last year and moved straight into the starting lineup alongside Stefanovic as the only two who have started all eight of Purdue’s contests. He’s been a bit of a revelation on the wing, shooting 43% from deep and providing as-expected defense (1 steal/game).

Three questions

Can Fran McCaffery find the right mix at point guard? It is too simple to say Jordan Bohannon has played too much simply because his shot is not falling. He has looked more spry after his hip surgeries and his per 40 minute stats in assists and averaging the most assists and steals are well above the high watermark set in both categories during his freshman year, while being clean with the ball (his assist-to-turnover ratio is at an all-time high).

Yet it’s fair to wonder if he is being deployed correctly when shots are not falling. Should Iowa turn to Connor McCaffery or Joe Toussaint a little more running the point to free up Bohannon as a catch and shoot specialist?

Fran did that in the second half of Iowa’s game against Gonzaga, running Toussaint pick and rolls with Garza 7 times vs. just 3 in the first half. Garza’s three-point shot opens driving lanes JT is uniquely capable of attacking. He didn’t have to find any shooters, as he scored 14 points on 5/7 shooting from 2 with Zags sticking to their assignment at the three-point line.

It was scratch where it itches basketball to its finest.

How does Iowa finish possessions? There is no easier way to improve defense than by simply limiting the number of offensive rebounds an opponent can have. This weakness has been exploited by Purdue big time against Iowa, as they’ve won the raw numbers game each of the last three outings even though none of the games have been particularly close. It’s even more stark when looking at the rates, with the Boilers gathering 40% & 47% in each of last year’s wins vs. the Hawks getting 29% & 28%.

Whether you believe it or not (you should because this is a fact), the weakest - by far - of Iowa’s defensive four factors is offensive rebounding rate. The other three (effective FG%, turnover rate, and FTA/FGA) are totally respectable inside of the top 100. Offensive rebounding rate is at 308th, per KenPom.

Improving rebounding is no more difficult than amping up the effort. Purdue is a great challenge here, as they rarely lose any effort battles.

Can Iowa defend the three? Purdue has shot makers and have won games the instant they’ve begun with hot shooting during their last four games against Iowa. In two instances, the Boilers have shot well above 50% and put the game well out of reach when paired with their defense.

It’s incredibly important for the Hawks to contest shots, as Purdue’s style is much different than Gonzaga’s in terms of pace and willingness to trade baskets with their opponents. The highest paced game Iowa has played against Purdue (71 possessions) is well below the 85 possessions the Hawks traded with the Zags.

A hot start by the Boilers will allow them to take the air out of the ball in a way Iowa has not faced yet this season.

Purdue is the perfect opponent for Iowa to face to open Big Ten play. They defend, are skilled, and have the book on how to beat the Hawkeyes. If Iowa is able to overcome much of what has plagued them in the past four matchups, it will show the Hawks are absolutely for real.

If not, we may be in for a longer winter than anticipated.