Winning streaks have to start somewhere. Iowa may have ended its five-game winning streak in a road loss to Maryland, but Sunday afternoon’s victory over the Fighting Illini could very well be the start of a new surge for the Hawkeye men. Next on tap is a road trip to West Lafeyette, Indiana to take on the Purdue Boilermakers in Mackey Arena, a venue where the Hawkeyes have lost nine of their last ten games.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in tonight’s game:
1. Can Iowa hit its three pointers?
The Hawkeyes have thrived from beyond the arc for most of the season, shooting 35.4% from deep over the course of the year. Purdue has been stellar at limiting their opponents’ three-point production this season, holding teams to 28.7% on the season, making them the 11th best team in the nation at this metric (Michigan State, currently the first place team in the conference, shot only 12% from three in a blowout loss against the Boilermakers in January). Something has to give.
Hawkeye fans have nightmares of their team’s 4-34 three-point shooting performance from their loss at Nebraska, but their performance against Wisconsin has to be encouraging. Despite having an abysmal shooting night from beyond the arc, the Hawkeyes overcame their 15% shooting percentage with strong defense and an efficient performance in the paint. If Purdue does manage to force the Hawkeyes inside the arc, Luka Garza’s dominant inside game and the ability of the Joes (Wieskamp and Toussaint) to beat their defenders off the dribble could be particularly important.
Iowa has four excellent three-point shooters in CJ Fredrick, Joe Wieskamp, Luka Garza, and Ryan Kriener. But it may be Iowa’s less consistent shooters who will play the biggest role in keeping their opponent honest from deep in this game. Illinois was very content to play off Joe Touissant, Bakari Evelyn, and Connor McCaffery when they had the ball beyond the arc – Toussaint and Evelyn proved reluctant to shoot, while McCaffery shot 3-5 from deep and repeatedly made the Illini pay for not respecting his range. The more games Iowa wins, the more teams will start to key in on Iowa’s best shooters and dare their other players to beat them. Whether Iowa’s role players can (or will even try) to convert from deep could have a big impact on Iowa’s offensive production in this game.
2. Can Iowa overcome Purdue’s talented duo on the low block?
The Boilermakers don’t have a big man who can claim to be Luka Garza’s equal (then again, does anyone?), but they do have a skilled frontcourt that boasts plenty of skill and size and can collectively give opponents fits. Matt Haarms, the 7’3 center from Amsterdam, is a hulking giant in the middle of the lane, while Trevion Williams is a powerful and deceptively athletic 280 lb. bowling ball of a power forward. Haarms is a fantastic post defender who averages over two blocks per game while Williams is a gifted scorer who is tenacious on the offensive glass.
While Purdue’s big men are easily among their best players, their talent hasn’t necessarily translated to much offensive production in the paint. As a team the Boilermakers rank dead last in Big Ten conference play in two-point shooting percentage despite ranking 3rd in two-point attempts. If Iowa can prevent Haarms from dominating defensively at the rim and lock down Williams on the low block, Purdue may struggle to score against the Hawkeyes.
3. Can Iowa build off its strong defensive performance from Sunday?
Speaking of struggling to score, the Hawkeyes absolutely locked down the Fighting Illini in the closing moments of their last game. Illinois led Iowa 62-61 with four minutes left in the clock, only to go ice cold from the field and lose the game 72-65. Iowa’s defense tightened up both inside and on the perimeter, and the Illini failed to account for their physicality down the stretch.
Iowa’s defense is far from elite, but in two of their past three games they have shown a defensive toughness that has been missing in years past. Iowa’s one outlier from last week was their poor showing at Maryland, where Anthony Cowan torched the Hawkeyes off the dribble while Jalen Smith was dynamic offensively in the post.
Purdue is far from an offensive juggernaut; the Boilermakers rank 288th in the nation in scoring offense and 14th out of 14 teams and have shot only 38.7% from the field during conference play. If the Hawkeyes can channel the defensive energy they showed against Illinois, they should be able to shut the Boilermakers down. But if Iowa’s defense fails to travel the way it did in its recent trip to College Park, the Boilermakers could make a push for yet another victory over the Hawkeyes in West Lafayette.