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#10 Hawkeyes face first place Northwestern

Will Luka Garza and company be able to stop the losing streak at one?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Northwestern Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not even January and Carver-Hawkeye Arena is playing host to the first place team in the Big Ten, as #10 Iowa Hawkeyes (7-2, 1-1) take on the the #19 Northwestern Wildcats (6-1, 3-0). What this intro lacks in creativity it is made up for in novelty, as Northwestern hasn’t started 3-0 since at least the 2001-02 season (they last started 2-0 in conference in January 2006).

They’re led by Chris Collins who has put together a historic resume in Evanston as the only head coach to lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament (2017), plus a win. To pull an analysis from Pants Party co-host, Ben Ross, Chris Collins resume is almost exclusively from that 2016-17 season, save the start to Big Ten play we are witnessing right now.

While Northwestern’s broad KenPom resume have them a shade below where Minnesota was when Iowa faced them last week due to being influenced by last year’s numbers, their Big Ten efficiencies are ... daunting. They’re #3 in offensive points/possession and #2 in defensive.

It’s on the back of tremendously efficient shooting (41% from 3, 55% from 2) and being clean with the ball (15% turnover rate; 16th in the country). There are currently five guys shooting over 40% from 3, which is insane and worthy of a bullet point list:

  • Miller Kopp - 13/22 (59.1%)
  • Boo Buie - 14/26 (53.8%)
  • Robbie Beran - 6/13 (46.2%)
  • Ryan Greer - 3/4 (75%)
  • Ty Berry - 9/21 (42.9%)

sorted by KenPom’s % of minutes played statistic

Defensively, they’re playing sound by forcing teams to run clock and end up with suboptimal shots (eFG%: 43%, 21st) without offering second chance opportunities (24% OREB rate, 56th). If there’s one clear and present opportunity, it’s shot from inside the arc: Northwestern is allowing 53% from two, 10th in the conference.

Their three Big Ten wins are: MSU by 14, Indiana by 7, and Ohio State by 1. Just the IU victory came away from Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Three guys

Boo Buie (G, 6’2”, 180 lbs): Northwestern’s primary ballhandler has been smoldering to start the season. On the season, he averages 14.4 points and 5.3 assists on 46% shooting overall (50% from deep). So far this season, Iowa has struggled with teams whose best players are their point guards and Buie poses concern here in the same way Marcus Carr & Jalen Suggs did in Iowa’s two losses.

I suspect we see a heavy dose of Joe Toussaint to cover Buie, though he and Jordan Bohannon both accumulated four fouls each on Friday. His ability to make shots probably eliminates the effectiveness of Iowa’s zone before these teams set foot on the hardwood.

insert joke about Iowa’s zone lacking effectiveness irrespective of Buie

Pete Nance (F, 6’10”, 225 lbs): Nance’s stat line feels genuinely impossible, with a 1.6% offensive rebounding rate from a team’s tallest starter but it would align with the team’s low number which limits opponent transition opportunities. He’s averaged 10.9 points and 6.9 rebounds on 68.6% shooting from two.

There’s opportunity for Iowa to get him into foul trouble, as his fouls/40 minutes has increased in each of his three seasons. His backup, 6’10”/245 pound Ryan Young, is stylistically much different as he is among the conference’s best rebounders on offense and defense.

Miller Kopp (F, 6’7”, 215 lbs): See above bullet points, re: Kopp. He’s Northwestern’s leading scorer at 15.5 points/game but has been more than just a shooter. He leads the team in steals (1.3/game), averages a couple assists, and is incredibly clean on both sides of the court by averaging less than a turnover & foul per game so far this season.

Joe Wieskamp will often have the assignment on Kopp and it’s easy to draw similarities between the two. Kopp is probably what Wieskamp would look like if JW only shot it 8 times a game.

Three questions

Which defense does Iowa get? The effort and execution which happened against Purdue did not carry over into the Minnesota game, as Iowa allowed a season-high 1.33 points/possession. Not only is that rate an unwinnable number but the 1.22 Iowa allowed in regulation is difficult for any offense to overcome, especially one shooting 37% from the floor.

At this juncture, NW does not offer any “easy outs” for Iowa’s defense. They’ll play five guys who can stretch Iowa’s defense and force the Hawks into untenable situations on that side of the court.

Maybe the Wildcats will simply miss shots tonight and statistics might say they’re due in some respect - only once have they shot lower than 50% from 2 and 40% from 3 this season (their loss to Pittsburgh). But those shots need to be difficult or else Iowa will see themselves in another unwanted shootout.

Can Iowa make shots? A silly question, to be sure, as just two games so far have feature a performance from Iowa which was not an opponent’s worst defensive outing of the season (Gonzaga & Purdue). Yet the Hawkeyes have been spotty from deep in the last three games, with Jordan Bohannon receiving a brunt of the criticism (just 4/20 over that stretch).

While there are fair complaints about non-shooters shooting, just 19 of 86 three-point attempts the last three games have come from outside the quartet of Bohannon, Wieskamp, Garza, & CJ Fredrick. Over half of those 19 came in the Hawks blowout win of Purdue, so restraint has been shown, overall.

So yeah, some of the rare inefficiencies we’ve seen from Iowa is simply about guys collectively making shots. If they’re not, play like Wieskamp’s where he asserted himself offensively to get to the line is what needs to be seen more across the board.

Is it worth complaining about the rotation yet? I do not think the current imbalance we are seeing is solved by going with Joe Toussaint over Bohannon. If Bohannon makes shots, his value is obvious. Yet when he doesn’t, simply putting JT in Bo’s spot in the lineup offers its own deficiencies (i.e. spacing with Connor McCaffery as two subpar shooters) which require creativity to manage.

These types of complaints are irrelevant when Iowa wins, yet when they lose it opens Pandora’s box. I know I have thoughts of different rotations dancing like sugar plum fairies in my head.

My gut reaction is Iowa needs to find its best four defenders to put around Garza and go from there. Spitballing, but that feels like Toussaint/Fredrick/Wieskamp/Keegan Murray/Garza.

Through just over a week of play throughout the Big Ten season, the conference has been turned upside down. What looked like an easier stretch of 10 games has upped in difficulty as Iowa could not beat Minnesota and is currently staring down the barrel of five games in six against ranked teams.

If the Hawkeyes hope to challenge for a conference title, winning games at home are an absolute necessity. Otherwise, those goals will fall well short and the hopes of 2021 success will be pinned to postseason performance.

A win tonight provides a wider berth for a potential conference title run.