Iowa’s 58-55 road win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers was far from pretty, but it was exactly what the Hawkeyes needed after a frustrating defeat against Indiana and the loss of freshman sharpshooter CJ Fredrick to injury. Yet as good as Iowa should feel about this victory, a narrow win over a 12-13 Minnesota squad also revealed a team that has yet to find its footing without Fredrick in the lineup. With five games remaining, each against top 30 teams in KenPom’s most recent rankings, Iowa must elevate its game significantly to avoid faltering down the stretch.
Iowa’s first opponent on its murderer’s row of a schedule is Ohio State, a team that has won five of its last six games, with four of those wins coming without star freshman point guard and Iowa native DJ Carton. The Hawkeyes are fortunate to catch the red-hot Buckeyes at home, where they have not lost a game since November 11th. With two evenly matched teams both trying to win without key players, the homecourt advantage may be exactly what the Hawkeyes need to give them the edge in this matchup.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in tonight’s game:
1. Can Luka Garza continue his dominant run against Ohio State’s stout interior defense?
I’m running out of superlatives with which to describe Luka Garza. “Dominant” hardly seems to account for his eleven straight games scoring 20+ points. “Herculean” is insufficient to describe the way he’s carried the Hawkeyes on offense for almost the entire season while also expending maximum effort on defense. “Absolutely filthy” still doesn’t seem adequate to capture the feeling of watching a 6’11 center dominate on the low block with a full stable of creative, technically brilliant post moves, only to step out beyond the arc and drain a clutch three-pointer at a key moment in the game. By nearly every metric, Garza has been the Big Ten’s best player, and is arguably the top player in all of college basketball.
Ohio State won’t be able to stop Luka Garza, because at this point, I’m not convinced that any college team can stop him short of poisoning his water before the game—and even then he’d probably post a 16-8-2 stat line. But the Buckeyes do have as good a chance as any team to slow Garza down. Ohio State has allowed its opponents to shoot only 41.5% on two-point attempts this season, the fourth lowest percentage allowed in college basketball, which is a major reason why the Buckeyes allow only 61.4 points a contest, the 11th lowest per-game total in the sport.
Unlike many elite defensive teams, the Buckeyes don’t rely on high-volume shot blockers to shut down opponents in the paint. Instead, Chris Holtmann’s swarming, aggressive post defense thrives on giving offensive players multiple looks, sending double-teams from unexpected places, and also trusting that their guys can stop opposing players from scoring one-on-one when it really counts. Kaleb Wesson is best known for his own scoring prowess on the low block, but the 6-9, 270 lbs. junior has been an absolute tank in the interior and is the cornerstone around which the Buckeye defense is built. When opponents do manage to get Kaleb in foul trouble, Kyle Young, EJ Liddell, and Kaleb’s older brother Andre can serve as suitable replacements.
Garza has proven immune to basically any defense this season, though teams who can effectively swarm him and deny him clean looks at the basket have had much more success than those who try to play him straight up. How often Ohio State chooses to double, and whether Garza can make the right decision in response to those double-teams, will be a major determining factor in how effective Iowa’s offense will be against the stingy Buckeye D.
2. Can Joe Wieskamp regain his footing?
To say that Joe Wieskamp had a rough outing against Minnesota would be an understatement. In the worst game of his season and one of the worst of his career, Wieskamp scored only two points, shot 1-7 from the floor, and attempted only one three-pointer and zero free throws. As the second half progressed, it seemed as though Wieskamp ceased all attempts to even find his shot, functionally disappearing on offense. While Wieskamp’s eight rebounds were a nice contribution and proof that he didn’t completely check out of the game, his importance to Iowa’s offense demands a more impactful and aggressive performance down the line.
With CJ Fredrick hobbled and unlikely to play against OSU, Wieskamp is the only consistent source of offense in Iowa’s backcourt and the only perimeter player capable of getting his own shot either inside or outside the arc. Joe has appeared at times this season to have permanently found another gear on offense, including just two games ago when he dropped 30 on Nebraska team that seemed absolutely incapable of stopping him off the dribble. Wieskamp doesn’t need to set a new career high every time he steps on the court for Iowa to win, but he will likely does need score above his season average of 14 a game. Andre Wesson is the most likely Buckeye to draw the assignment of guarding Wieskamp and is one of the more versatile wing defenders in the Big Ten. Wieskamp will need to be on his game and aggressively looking for his shots to stop the Hawkeye offense from stalling out.
3. Which team can best make the other pay from beyond the arc?
Tonight’s matchup will pit two of the conference’s best three-point shooting teams against one another. The Buckeyes lead the league by a wide margin in three-point efficiency at a red-hot 38.2% from deep, while the Hawkeyes rank third in the conference at 34.9%. Fans of the long ball should be salivating about this matchup, especially since Ohio State has allowed conference opponents to make nearly 37% of their threes, the highest rate allowed in the Big Ten. While Iowa has improved its three-point defense this season due in part to their four-guard lineup, the absence of Fredrick has forced the Hawkeyes to play two bigs far more frequently, making them more vulnerable to the long ball. Iowa gave up plenty of good looks from three against Minnesota, and the Buckeyes aren’t likely to miss most of them the way the putrid shooting Gophers did.
Iowa should have plenty of chances to hit from three tonight, especially if the Buckeyes collapse on Garza in the post. But who can Iowa count on to make these shots? Garza can certainly fill it up from three, but what about when he’s the player kicking it out to an open shooter? Fredrick is Iowa’s best three-point shooter, but he’s hampered by a sore ankle. Wieskamp is always dangerous from deep but needs to show that his performance against Minnesota was a one-off and not the start of a trend. Ryan Kriener and Connor McCaffery have both had hot streaks from beyond the arc, but neither is particularly consistent. Bakari Evelyn and Joe Touissant both shoot below 30% from deep.
Ohio State, meanwhile, has no fewer than five players who are lights-out from three, so the Hawkeyes must take care to avoid giving up too many easy looks. Iowa can’t afford to allow any Buckeye to pull a Devonte Green and go nuclear from long range, but Kaleb Wesson is also too strong on the inside for Iowa to completely sell out on the perimeter. Striking the right balance will be key.
Hawkeye fans should expect a hard-fought battle that will put Iowa’s home winning streak to the test. Whether Iowa can hit its shots from deep, and whether they can avoid giving Ohio State too many uncontested opportunities to do the same, could very well decide the outcome of the game.