Yesterday’s turn of events (namely, Minnesota’s beatdown of Michigan) have cleared the path for the #5 Iowa Hawkeyes (11-2, 5-1) to assert themselves atop the Big Ten conference standings alongside the previously undefeated Wolverines.
Standing in their path, most immediately, are the Northwestern Wildcats (6-5, 3-4). The Wildcats, you may remember, were in pole position at the time of their last matchup. Since then, they’ve gone on a four-game losing streak (at Iowa, at Michigan, vs. Illinois, at Ohio State) where each game was decided by 10+ points.
At that time, Northwestern had top 3 conference-only efficiencies on both sides of the floor. Four double-digit losses are not kind to such arithmetic and now have them 10th on offense and 12th on defense. Yeash.
They’re still clean with the ball and efficient shooters but do little by way of creating extra possessions. They’re 14th in conference-only offensive rebounding rate and middle of the pack in terms of forcing turnovers, per KenPom (5th in conference). When factoring in non-conference games, their inability to turn opponents over is even more stark at 310th.
Three guys, revisited
Boo Buie (G, 6’2”, 180 lbs)
vs. Iowa: 2 points, 1/8 shooting, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 turnovers
since Iowa: 1.6 points/game, 5% shooting, 1.3 rebounds/game, 3.3 assists/game, 1 turnover/game
Buie is in a slump of all slumps. After scoring double digits in the five prior games, Buie has been absolutely searching for offense. Could Iowa prove to be the tonic for his woes?
insert joke about Iowa’s zone lacking effectiveness irrespective of Buie
Pete Nance (F, 6’10”, 225 lbs)
vs. Iowa: 21 points, 9/15 shooting, 4 rebounds
since Iowa: 10.3 points/game, 52% shooting, 3.6 rebounds/game
Despite serving as the Wildcats’ center, Nance is far too easy to prevent from doing center things like rebounding. After a strong game against Iowa where he showcased a varied skillset, his recent statistics read like someone enamored with a perimeter-oriented game - he draws a little over 2 fouls/40 minutes. Northwestern would be well-served if Nance was able to assert himself down low offensively and defensively.
Miller Kopp (F, 6’7”, 215 lbs)
vs. Iowa: 11 points, 4/7 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 assists
since Iowa: 12.3 points/game, 38% shooting, 4.7 rebounds/game, 0 assists
For as much as January in the Big Ten has seemed to turn Northwestern into the Mildcats, perhaps nobody has been more affected as Kopp. Heading into the first game, he was shooting close to 60% from deep and has gone just 5/14 since. It’s decent, no doubt, but well below where he needs to be to keep their offense clicking.
Will Luka Garza be similarly stymied? LG was held below 20 points in a conference game for the first time in forever when they last faced off. It was largely due to Chris Collins’ gameplan of throwing Nance and fellow big, Ryan Young, at Garza for 3-4 minute bursts to keep him consistently off-kilter. Sure, it worked in the fact that The Peacock didn’t get his, but Iowa still won comfortably.
I was struck by how well Garza adjusted after a tough first outing against Minnesota to get a much more efficient 33 points - less shots, less offensive rebounds, more panache. If Garza is able to take what he saw in the first matchup and apply it to attack the Wildcats better, it’ll make Iowa’s offense go.
Can Iowa pick up where they left off? It’s been a week since Iowa last played in a revenge game against Minnesota. Overall, the Hawks have looked as consistently good on both sides of the floor as we’ve seen in recent seasons. They’ve yet to dip below one point/possession on offense this season and have seen the defense perform very well in their most recent outings as they held both Maryland and Minnesota to under one PPP as well.
To speak to Iowa’s consistency - their weakest offensive half so far this season has been 33 points. By hook or by crook, the Hawks are scoring. That output allows them to feel comfortable - sometimes too comfortable - finding their footing on defense. If strong offense and capable defense return for this squad, they should make quick work of Northwestern.
It is fair to wonder if it can continue, though. The best teams in the conference have looked shaky of late - Wisconsin on the road against Michigan & Rutgers, Michigan getting their barn doors beat off by Minnesota, Illinois being Illinois - so Iowa could set themselves apart by coming in and looking like the top ranked team they are against a lesser conference foe.
Does the hot hand offense continue? Iowa has done a tremendous job finding the player who’s absolutely feeling it throughout the season. Jordan Bohannon has been breathing fire the last couple weeks and brought his three-point shooting percentage to his career mark. CJ Fredrick has backed off after a couple strong games, though he could always find his shot. Joe Wieskamp has been assertive within the confines of the offense and will look to back up his 20-point outing against Minnesota. Keegan Murray simply doesn’t take bad shots.
The beautiful thing about Iowa’s offense is they don’t need everybody to be great every night. Behind Garza’s 20+, it allows everyone to search for the absolute best shots on a given night and enables the individual volatility. If the Hawks continue to pass up good shots to find great ones, it will make them incredibly difficult to defend.
With losses amongst the top four in the conference, Iowa can make a play for top dog with a win today. While it’s a little early to say it’d put them in the driver’s seat, the margin for error on their season opens up if they can seal the deal.