If a basketball team wins four games in four days and nobody is around to see it, does it still get to claim a conference championship? The Hawkeye basketball team is hoping to find out. With concerns over the coronavirus spreading even faster than the sickness itself, the Big Ten has made the prudent decision to bar casual fans from attending Big Ten tournament games starting with Thursday’s 12:00 PM EST game between Michigan and Rutgers. As high as the stakes are for teams hoping to depart Indianapolis as Big Ten Tournament champions, they pale in comparison to those facing millions of Americans who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. If ever there was a time for athletics to serve as an escape for worry-plagued fans, that moment is now. And with recent news that the NBA is suspending its season due to these very concerns, basketball fans should enjoy the remaining games while they can.
Under these eerie circumstances, the Hawkeyes will take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a team fresh off last night’s 74-57 win over Northwestern. Iowa is 2-0 against their rivals from up north having handily beaten them 72-52 in a December home game and eked out a hard-fought 58-55 win in the barn on February 16. Still, the bizarre nature of this game makes it tempting to toss the previous two results out the window. How has the specter of coronavirus impacted the preparation for this game? How will either team respond to the lack of crowd noise or visible fans in the stands? Will the lack of distractions in the arena help a slumping player like Joe Wieskamp by allowing him to easily tune out the noise and just focus on his game? Will Fran McCaffery tone things down on the sidelines now that he knows that fans will be able to hear EXACTLY what he’s yelling at the officials? America will just have to tune in to find out!
Here are a few key factors to watch for heading into today’s game:
1. Can Iowa limit Minnesota’s offensive rebounds?
It’s hard to imagine that Iowa, a team with an elite rebounder like Luka Garza and two of the conference’s best rebounding perimeter players in Joe Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery, could suddenly be struggling in this area, but here we are. Iowa has no problems pulling down offensive rebounds of their own (the Hawkeyes are fifth among all Big Ten teams in this category during conference play) but have struggled lately limiting the second chance opportunities allowed to their opponents. In Iowa’s past three games against Penn State, Purdue, and Illinois, the Hawkeyes have surrendered 13, 17, and 11 offensive boards respectively, a concerning trend after being solid at preventing second chance points for much of the season.
What is causing Iowa’s recent difficulties in stopping offensive rebounds? The Hawkeyes’ recent opponents certainly have something to do with it, as Penn State, Purdue, and Illinois all feature guards who are capable rebounders and physically imposing post players who can outmuscle Iowa’s small ball starting lineup. However, the Hawkeyes seem to have been pressing of late to try to get back quickly in transition after missed shots, possibly as a way to get some of their slumping offensive weapons some easy looks before the defense can settle in. This strategy makes sense in theory, but has led to a big uptick in second chance points of late, a trend Iowa cannot afford to allow continue if it hopes to make much of a postseason run.
Minnesota is exactly the type of opponent that is built to capitalize on poor defensive rebounding by the Hawkeyes. The Gophers rank 3rd in the conference in offensive rebounds and are led in this category by center Daniel Oturu, who averages nearly four offensive boards per game. Watching the Gophers eat up 13 offensive rebounds against a hapless Northwestern squad yesterday, it’s safe to say Iowa’s coaches should be concerned about this prospect. Minnesota is not particularly efficient at shooting the ball (the Gophers have made only 42.6% of their attempts from the field this season), so repeatedly giving them multiple shots per possession may be the best chance Minnesota has to pull the upset over the Hawkeyes.
2. Can Minnesota continue its hot shooting from beyond the arc?
Iowa isn’t exactly known for its defense, but one wouldn’t know that from watching the Hawkeyes’ prior two contests against Minnesota, a team they twice held under 60 points. Iowa’s ability to shut Minnesota down from beyond the arc has been a huge factor behind the Gophers’ putrid scoring, as the Hawkeyes held them to 24% and 28% shooting from deep. Gabe Kalscheur, arguably the Gophers’ top three-point shooter, has been held to 2-13 from range in his two games against the Hawks this year.
Minnesota’s mediocre three-point shooting (31.6% in conference play) makes their recent hot streak all the more baffling. After a solid 7-16 outing in a loss to Indiana, the Gophers absolutely eviscerated Nebraska from deep, draining 18 three-pointers en route to a 107-75 beatdown to close the regular season. This hot shooting continued during the first round of the tournament, as the Gophers made 12-24 threes in their win over Northwestern.
Oturu remains Minnesota’s primary offensive threat on the inside, but Iowa cannot afford to double him consistently if his teammates continue to shoot lights out from distance. The Hawkeyes have dramatically improved their three-point defense over the past few seasons, but occasionally still struggle to make the proper rotations after a quick ball reversal, and are particularly vulnerable to giving up threes after dreaded offensive rebounds. If the Hawkeye defense can force the Gophers three-point attack to come back down to earth, it should allow them to focus most of their intention on stopping Minnesota’s potent interior scoring.
3. Can Luka Garza continue his strong play against the Gophers?
Surprise, surprise, Luka Garza has been phenomenal in both of his games against Minnesota this season. Despite going up against an elite two-way player in Oturu, Garza dropped 21 points and 10 rebounds during their first meeting before scoring 24 of Iowa’s 58 points during the second contest. If not for Garza’s excellent play, it’s highly unlikely that Iowa could have escaped Minneapolis with a win in February.
Garza is one of the leading contenders for the Naismith Award along with Dayton’s Obi Toppin. While the Flyers’ record is superior to Iowa’s, Garza has posted his superior numbers against significantly better competition while playing in college basketball’s most competitive league. The Big Ten Tournament provides Garza with a prime opportunity to make his case for being the player of the year, and for Iowa to leave Indianapolis trophy in hand, he will need turn in a performance which rises to that caliber. Luka Garza’s chance to lock down the Naismith and further cement his place as a Hawkeye basketball legend begins today.