While RU entered the conference as a doormat, they are anything but at the moment, a fact best reflected by Iowa’s four straight wins between 2015 & 2017 turning into a 2-2 split in four games since. In fact, the Scarlet Knights have handed the Hawks their rear ends in the two losses which have come by 16 & 18 points.
Leading the turnaround is Steve Pikiell, who had this bunch set for their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1991 after finishing 20-11. He’s compiled a 71-66 record in Piscataway, which is more a statement on the program he took over than the team they are now. While the defense has slipped a smidge, the offense is more than picking up for it by averaging 80.6 points/game, the most since 1993.
So far this season, the Scarlet Knights have beaten Illinois in a barn-burner, as well as Syracuse, Maryland, & Purdue. Their lone loss came at Ohio State, in a game they had in the bag before this tweet sent OSU on a 24-3 run:
It’s silly to suggest there’s been a better player in the Big Ten than Luka Garza but every time I watch Rutgers, Ron Harper Jr. is absolutely balling.— Harrison (@HD_starr) December 23, 2020
Rutgers is a team deserving of their top-15 ranking. They’ve long had a defensive identity and have done well to improve their offense since they last faced off. While it’s likely they’ll be without leading scorer, Ron Harper, Jr. (23.4 PPG, 50% 3P%), they did well to replace his scoring with strong showings from Montez Mathis (5/5 from 3) and Jacob Young in the comeback win against Purdue.
Truthfully I could write about Ron Harper, Jr. three times in this space but I am currently operating under the assumption he is unavailable for today’s game. If he can play and is near 100%, it changes the complexion of this team big time.
Jacob Young (G, 6’2”, 185 lbs): The senior who transferred in from Texas has settled nicely into the starting lineup this year, scoring 15.5 points/game and adding a team-high 5.6 assists. His ability to step it up has been incredibly valuable as lead guard, Geo Baker, has worked though injury issues through much of this season. Most notable in Young’s improvement has been shooting across the board - he’s now 40% from behind the arc & 80% at the stripe, well above career averages.
Paul Mulcahey (G, 6’6”, 210 lbs): After a solid freshman season, the New Jersey product has seen his minutes ramp up and matched it with efficient play. If Harper is out, Rutgers will lean on his ability to make plays as the team’s best passer (3.9 assists/game). Even if RHJ plays, Mulcahey is a jack-of-all-trades who can keep the defense honest from deep, play sound defense, and serve as a secondary ballhandler. He is also 100% the most likely to get into a weird scrap with Connor McCaffery.
Montez Mathis (G, 6’4”, 210 lbs): He’s coming off his best game at Rutgers after scoring 25 points by doing his best Ron Harper, Jr. impression from behind the arc. Whether he can sustain it is the big question for Iowa’s defense. Statistics suggest he might regress to his career 30% shooting from deep (he’s also shooting 51% from the free throw line this season) but he can make Iowa pay in other ways with his athleticism and defensive ability.
Can Luka Garza return to form? Though it is just three games into the conference season, the book looks to be out a bit to challenge Garza as his eFG% is 18 percentage points below his season average. He’s sustained his efficiency by being a top five offensive rebounder in the conference, drawing fouls, and draining free throws at a 79% clip, all while being incredibly patient and smart with the ball.
Myles Johnson, Clifford Omoruyi (if he’s healthy), Mamadou Doucoure, and Dean Reiber may all get their shot at defending Garza as rotating bodies against LG has been a great way for teams to keep him off-balance. Johnson is the biggest of the bunch but also the most foul-prone - he’s tallied 4+ fouls in four of their last five games. If Pikiell settles into a singular guy versus Garza, it’s most likely to be Johnson, which may allow The Peacock to use Johnson’s own anticipation against him.
Will Iowa be able to take advantage of their depth? So far this season, Rutgers has leveraged their bench in just 25.8% of their minutes, per KenPom, good for 273rd in the country. With so many bumps and bruises resulting in missed time, Iowa should be able to take advantage of Rutgers lack of depth with the bench mob of Joe Toussaint (who is good to go after a slight ankle tweak), Keegan Murray, Patrick McCaffery, and Jack Nunge.
This group serves as an absolute curveball for opponents to prepare against, when CJ Fredrick or Joe Wieskamp is added to the mix. They can throw length, athleticism, and defense at opponents expecting a much more offensively-oriented lineup.
Murray, in particular, played more minutes against Northwestern than any other game and has asserted himself as a guy who can positively impact games without ever touching the ball. And, oh yeah, he can also impact games when he has the rock, too. At 6’8”, he has height & length advantages over many of Rutgers smaller wings, though they will give him surely reintroduce him to Big Ten basketball.
Who has the hot hand? The best part about having incredible shooting throughout a team is it’s unlikely all of Iowa’s shooters go cold for extended periods. Fredrick has found himself as the focal point of the Hawkeye offense more than ever after. Jordan Bohannon had a vintage Jordan Bohannon performance which gets everyone to forget about the point guard controversy.
Joe Wieskamp, though, is just 8/26 (31%) from three since his 5/7 outburst against North Carolina. He’s been great in other ways throughout this six game stretch by willing himself to the basket and free throw line while playing clean basketball and solid defense. Can he regain his form from behind the arc, though? Feels due.
The Hawkeyes will have to scratch and claw (figuratively, not literally) if they hope to come away from Jersey with a win. They’ve got their advantages but Rutgers has had Iowa’s number with their physical style which can neutralize what makes the Hawks great.
It should be another good one, as these two teams look to assert themselves into the upper echelon of the conference standings. A win here will go a long way for either team, come March.