Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.
This year, we’ll be celebrating the glad tidings of Big Ten basketball later today with a four-game marathon which concludes when our beloved #4 Iowa Hawkeyes (7-1, 1-0) take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-1, 0-1). The Gophers are coming off a win this past weekend against the Saint Louis Billikens. This was just an excuse to share my recent learning that a billiken is a mythical good-luck figure. Moving on.
It feels almost unbelievable Richard Pitino is in his 8th season leading Minnesota, having accumulated a 134-109 record (55%).
Their hot start has been on the back of mediocre non-conference opponents, though the SLU win (ranked 32 according to KenPom) was pretty impressive. Their next best wins were an overtime bout with Boston College (105) and back-to-back wins against Loyola Marymont (129). In their only conference game which was their only game away from THE BARN, they lost to Illinois by 27 points.
They are the only team in the conference who currently plays at a higher pace than the Hawkeyes and use it to generate a ton of free throw attempts. They rank fifth in the department according to KenPom with a free throw attempt-to-field goal attempt ratio at a whopping .51:1. Marcus Carr leads the way with 69 attempts (nice) and they have four more players who have shot between 27 & 42 free throws. For comparison, Luka Garza has just 58 attempts with only Joe Wieskamp as the other Hawk with more than 27 FTAs (he’s at 30).
Other than that, they aren’t particularly efficient on offense, save doing a solid job of not turning the ball over. They shoot 30% from deep (250th in the country) and 50% from 2.
Their defense is middle of the road - just a high opponent offensive rebounding rate of 31% sticks out as bad - as KenPom ranks their defense 50th in the country. They also do a solid job limiting shots from 3 as just 31% of opponents’ shots come from there.
Marcus Carr (G, 6’2”, 195 lbs): The junior point guard has continued his upward trajectory with an underwhelming freshman season at Pitt in 2018, a solid season last year after sitting out, and a breakout campaign this year averaging 24 points and 6 assists. So far this season, there’s been a bit of “as Carr goes, so do the Goofs” vibe with his two weakest games, statistically coming against Illinois (16 points on 23% shooting) and BC (22 points on 35% shooting with 4 turnovers).
He still poses a tall task for Iowa as he could certainly pull off a poor man’s Jalen Suggs against the Hawkeyes. Carr has shown high upside defensively (4 steals against the Billikens) and from deep (37% shooter on the season) and his assist numbers speak for themselves.
Iowa might still be able to win if Carr has a good game, but it becomes a lot less likely if that’s the case.
Liam Robbins (F, 6’10”, 235 lbs): insert guy who gets the first crack at defending Luka Garza.
I feel like I’m leaning on a cliched format whenever I focus on the starting opponent big, but Robbins is a very interesting guy to backfill Daniel Oturu. He transferred in from Drake, received a waiver and has put up very similar numbers as last year despite being a secondary option on a power five ballclub.
The former Bulldog is an opposing big man who most resembles Garza, himself. Robbins is an inside-out threat (35% from deep, 48% from the field) and currently looks the part in 24 minutes a game, adding 2.4 blocks/game. What’s currently holding him back is fouls. He averages 3.5 a game.
Both Gach (G, 6’6”, 185 lbs): The Utah transfer has also added a needed boost to the Gophers, offensively, and is currently their best three-point shooter at a tidy 40%. He averages 13 points/game and is their #2 rebounder & assister at 6.0 and 3.8, respectively. His ability to facilitate as a secondary ball handler will force Iowa to be cognizant of their rotations.
Can Joe Wieskamp continue to play the best basketball of his career? On their face, Wieskamp’s uptick in numbers look modest at 2 points from last year (16/game this year) and incremental improvements everywhere else. But it is coming in 6 less minutes/game, which make his per-40 minute numbers look fantastic:
This jives with the “eye test” on Wiesy, as he has looked much more assertive in seeking out his shot, smarter in terms of his shot selection, and more confident skying for rebounds, among other things.
He is very likely to face bigger, taller defenders as Minnesota may line 6’9” Isaiah Ihnen or 6’8” Brandon Johnson against him to limit the easy shots at the rim via screens & cuts he got against Purdue. I suspect it will force him to take an early three or two to open up driving lanes.
With JW playing as well as he is right now, his versatility will be a lot for opponents to handle. As the Big Ten season wears on, he’ll have to find different ways to get his against each team.
How does Iowa put the breaks on Carr? I suspect Iowa’s first go at stopping Minnesota’s point guard will be CJ Fredrick manning him up so staying out of foul trouble will be imperative for the Hawkeye sophomore. Carr is a threat to shoot over any zone, so that may feel shaky...especially if any other Gopher gets it going from deep.
Where Iowa may settle is with a press to get the ball out of his hands. shorten the shot clock, and limit their ability to get Carr the ball back. Fredrick will be the key piece here but the matchup may dictate Fran McCaffery plays Joe Toussaint - Iowa’s best on-ball defender - more than his current average of 15 minutes/game.
Can Luka Garza stay out of foul trouble? In two of Iowa’s last four games, Garza has found himself sitting in Fran’s penalty box with either two first half fouls or a third foul early in the second half. Robbins will be tricky to defend down low and Minnesota puts an emphasis on scoring at the line like few in the country, let alone conference play.
Iowa is best when Garza is on the court and their 2-foul participation currently rests at 0%. Knowing a couple early fouls on LG means an easier Hawkeye team to defend, it’s imperative Garza plays solid defense without getting into foul trouble.
Tonight is the Hawkeyes first true road test and they’re facing a motivated Minnesota bunch who doesn’t want to join Penn State at the basement of the conference, record-wise. A win puts Iowa in position to play the conference season from the top of the table.
As with the Hawks win over Purdue, it showed they could win a game while scoring just 70 points - a necessity if they hope to win the conference. Winning on the road is another necessity if they hope to challenge for a regular season title and a good performance in The Barn will indicate they’re up for the challenge.