Iowa suffered a frustrating loss at Michigan State Tuesday night, but its ambitions of finishing in the upper tier of the Big Ten remain very much in play. The Hawkeyes may be sitting at #6 in the conference standing as this piece is being written, but with a four-way logjam of teams with 11-6 conference records tied for second place, they still have plenty of opportunities to move up.
One such chance comes this Saturday when the Hawkeyes (10-7 in Big Ten play) return home to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions, one of the teams currently ranked ahead of them in the conference hierarchy. Iowa narrowly lost to Penn State in neutral site action in January in what remains one of the most entertaining games of the conference season, and the Hawkeyes will be searching for a spot of revenge as try to even the score. The first matchup between the Hawkeyes and the Nittany Lions was an 89-86 barnburner that saw both defenses pushed to their absolute breaking point, and with a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament potentially on the line, the rematch has all the makings of an instant classic.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Saturday’s game:
1. Can Iowa get any offensive production from its wing players?
Look at this picture:
Luka Garza is literally being quadruple-teamed. It’s not clear from this image which four Hawkeyes were sharing the court with Garza when this play occurred, but it’s very clear that Minnesota wasn’t particularly afraid of any of them being able to beat them offensively if given the chance. Luka Garza may be the best player in college basketball, but he can’t carry an offense singlehandedly for 40 minutes.
Iowa’s role players had a fantastic game against Michigan State. Ryan Kriener was hyper-efficient scoring 18 points in as many minutes, Bakari Evelyn contributed 9 points off the bench, and Connor McCaffery played a phenomenal game, posting 11 points and seven assists without committing a single turnover. Yet Iowa still struggled to score in the second half, as Luka Garza, plagued by an ankle injury and hounded by Xavier Tillman and whichever other 2-3 Spartan defenders Tom Izzo threw at him on a given play, shot below 40% from the field. Iowa led the Spartans by ten during the second half, but as the game started to slip away and the defense collapsed on Garza, Iowa struggled to find other players who could create their own shots.
Joe Wieskamp SHOULD be Iowa’s secondary scoring option, and for most of the season he has been. But since scoring a career-high 30 points against Nebraska on February 8, Wieskamp’s offensive efficiency has cratered. In his past four games, Wieskamp has shot 2-15 from three and twice been held to only one made field goal in a contest. His poor shooting has not stopped him from competing on the defensive end and on the glass, but has visibly shaken his confidence on offense to the point where his passivity made him a detriment to Iowa’s scoring attack late in the game against MSU, a sentence few Hawkeye fans ever expected to read.
Even if Wieskamp does find his rhythm against Penn State, it doesn’t guarantee victory, as the Nittany Lions withstood a combined 57-point outing from Wieskamp and Garza in their first matchup. Iowa missed CJ Fredrick after he went down in that game, just as they have missed him in every game since he suffered a second injury against Indiana. Fredrick’s deadly three-point accuracy (46.7% on the season) forces oppnents to account for him at all times, stretching the defense and creating more lanes for Wieskamp to drive to the basket and disincentivizing teams from sending too many men to defend Garza in the post. Fredrick is considered probable to play in Saturday’s game at this moment, and even if he can’t go at full speed, his mere presence on the court will make the Hawkeyes a much harder team to defend.
Iowa needs greater offensive production from its wing players, whether it comes from Wieskamp, Fredrick, or both. Lamar Stevens and Myreon Jones give Penn State one of the most dynamic scoring duos in the conference, and Iowa’s offense will need to be firing on all cylinders if it hopes to keep up. Getting CJ Fredrick and the fully-realized version of Joe Wieskamp back on the floor will give the Hawkeyes a chance to do just that.
2. Which team can win the battle of the benches?
Iowa’s bench isn’t particularly deep, but the players that occupy it seem to have found a rhythm of late. Bakari Evelyn has had his most efficient shooting stretch in a Hawkeye uniform over the past four games, Cordell Pemsl has looked downright spry attacking the paint and battling for rebounds, and if Ryan Kriener is able to return to his role as a sixth-man, his resurgent scoring could help keep the Hawkeye offense rolling even with the starters out of the game.
Iowa’s bench will need to come up big once again to withstand the impressive depth boasted by Penn State. Iowa’s starters actually outplayed their Nittany Lion counterparts during their first matchup, but it was Penn State’s bench players whose strong performances did the Hawks in. Izaiah Brockington torched the Hawkeyes for a team-high 23 points in 24 minutes, while Curtis Jones Jr. scored 16 points (shooting 4-6 from three) and added four rebounds, three assists, and two blocks just for fun. But Penn State’s best bench player is Mike Watkins, a powerful, imposing athlete who can play above the rim and is one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. Watkins started against Iowa in January, but has proven to be a higher-impact player since slotting into his role as the sixth-man.
Penn State’s depth means that Iowa will not get much a reprieve at any point in the game. Even if the Hawkeye starters are able to open up a nice lead against the Nittany Lions, that advantage could evaporate quickly if Brockington or Jones catch fire off the bench or if Watkins can silence the crowd with one of his monster dunks. Iowa relied on three players (Garza, Wieksamp, and Joe Touissant) to carry them in their loss against Penn State, but will need a more balanced effort to get a win in this second matchup.
3. Can Iowa avoid committing turnovers?
The Hawkeyes haven’t always been turnover-prone this season, but when they have, it’s had a big impact on their team’s performance. The Hawkeyes coughed up the ball on 15 possessions in their January 4th loss compared to only seven give-aways committed by Penn State, which made a significant difference in the contest. Penn State’s defense is also extremely active in attempting to force turnovers, and has recorded more steals (113) than any team in the conference during Big Ten play. Point Guard Jamari Wheeler isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he is a crafty defender who leads the Nittany Lions in steals (1.6 per game) and managed to nab two against the Hawkeyes in January.
Iowa and Penn State are the two highest-scoring offenses in the conference, so it’s a safe bet that they will each manage to put up a lot of points in this matchup. If both teams find that their shots are falling, Iowa’s ability to maximize its scoring attempts by avoiding turnovers may be a key factor which could ultimately decide the outcome of the game.