Iowa’s basketball team may not have played a game on Monday, but they somehow managed to suffer a loss regardless. The arrest and suspension of backup power forward Cordell Pemsl means that Iowa will be shorthanded in its upcoming game against Indiana, forcing Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery to dig even deeper into an already shallow bench. Pemsl is not the star player some fans hoped he might become after he dropped 57 points during a three-game stretch early in the 2016-17 season, but his aggressive rebounding, strong screen setting, surprisingly deft passing, and general toughness have been an asset to the Hawkeyes this season. Former walk-on Riley Till will likely be pressed into action, and Luka Garza, Ryan Kriener, and Connor McCaffery may also be called upon to play some of Pemsl’s minutes.
Fortunately for Iowa, the Hoosiers are also limping into the matchup against the Hawkeyes. Indiana has lost four straight games, including last Saturday’s home defeat against Purdue during Bobby Knight’s first return to Assembly Hall in two decades. Indiana’s talent is undeniable, but they look very different than the team that beat Florida State by sixteen points in early December. Things have gotten so bad that Indiana coach Archie Miller has openly questioned his team’s toughness amid their recent skid. Indiana is decidedly on the NCAA tournament bubble right now (ESPN’s Andy Katz has them as an 11 seed and stuck in a play-in game in his latest projection), and the Hoosiers will be highly motivated to end their losing streak and improve their tournament resume with a win over the #21 Hawkeyes.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in tonight’s game:
1. Can Iowa stop Indiana from scoring inside?
The Hoosiers can do a lot of things very well but shooting three-pointers is not one of them. Indiana has shot only 31.5% from deep on the season, but their reluctance to even attempt the three-point shot has arguably been even more damaging to their offensive production. The Hoosiers rank dead last in the conference and 336th in the nation in three-point attempts, making them something of an anomaly in a game that has become increasingly reliant on the deep ball. If Indiana needs to make threes to stay in the game against Iowa, it’s not clear that they will be able to do so.
Where Indiana makes it hay on offense is in the paint. Star freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis shoots nearly 60% from inside the arc, doing most of his damage in the paint. Meanwhile, sophomore Justin Smith has proven to be effective at shooting of the dribble and has the athleticism to beat his defenders when he drives. Neither player is particularly dangerous from range (Jackson-Davis hasn’t even attempted a three this season), but if they can get to the rim, they can usually score.
Unfortunately, Iowa has struggled to stop opponents from scoring in the paint during conference play. Against Big Ten opponents, Iowa has allowed opposing teams to shoot almost 54% from two, second only to Nebraska for the worst opponent two-point shooting percentage in the conference. Part of this statistic certainly has to do with Iowa’s tendency to play four guards at once. Iowa’s starting lineup of Toussaint-Fredrick-Wieskamp-McCaffery-Garza is easily its most frequently used lineup combination on the season, and the Hawkeyes sacrifice a significant amount of size in the paint with this starting five, even as it has improved their ability to defend the three. However, Iowa’s guards have also struggled to contain athletic perimeter players who are capable of driving past them, as evidenced by strong scoring performances from athletic guards such as Maryland’s Antony Cowan and Rutgers’ Ron Harper. Indiana has both the size and the athleticism to pose a matchup challenge to the Hawkeyes if their defense is not on its game.
2. Which team can win the race to the foul line?
Iowa and Indiana have both been excellent at drawing fouls this season, which is a credit to both teams’ low post-oriented offensive attacks. The Hoosiers have shot a league leading 252 free throw attempts during conference play, while the Hawkeyes have attempted only one fewer. Iowa also draws more fouls than any other team in the conference, and their 195 made free throws in Big Ten play leads the league.
Where Iowa holds the advantage over Indiana is what happens after they get to the line. While the Hawkeyes are shooting an excellent 77.7% from the charity stripe in conference play, the Hoosiers have struggled to convert on their many attempts, making only 68.3% of them. Poor free throw shooting cost Indiana severely in a non-conference loss against Arkansas, whereas the Hawkeyes have used their strong play from the line to keep them afloat during their periodic poor shooting spells.
However, Iowa’s diminished depth means that Indiana can do significant damage to the Hawkeyes just by getting to the line. Pemsl’s suspension puts extra stress on Iowa’s frontcourt to avoid foul trouble, and two quick fouls by Kriener or (god forbid) Garza could result in Iowa fans seeing much more of Riley Till than they are used to. If Iowa can get to the line with regularity while preventing the Hoosiers from doing the same, they should have good shot to escape Assembly Hall with a win.
3. Which team can minimize its offensive mistakes?
Iowa has one of the best offenses in the country, but that doesn’t mean it has been completely immune to the occasional struggles. Not only has Iowa been turnover-prone at times, but even during a lights-out shooting performance against Nebraska in which the Hawkeyes dropped 96 points against their rivals, they still endured an eight-minute-long scoring drought which allowed the offensively-challenged Huskers to claw their way back into the game. Playing in a true basketball cathedral like Assembly Hall against a team that is growing increasingly desperate for signature conference wins, one can picture Iowa’s offense sputtering at times when confronted with an aggressive defense that is feeding off the energy of a rabid home crowd.
However, Indiana has also proven susceptible to offensive slowdowns at times. The Hoosiers have committed the second most turnovers during conference play, have averaged only 66 points per game against Big Ten teams, and have had a truly abysmal offensive stretch during their past three games, scoring 49, 59, and 62 points during these losses. Indiana likely doesn’t have the offensive horses to keep up with the Hawkeyes if the visiting team is hitting its shots.
If Iowa can tap into the offensive rhythm that allowed them to go on sustained scoring runs against Nebraska while avoiding lengthy droughts, they should have the edge in this game. Wieskamp needs to continue his hot shooting, while Ryan Kriener, who had gone five games without scoring in double figures, seems due for another breakout scoring performance.