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#4 Iowa faces Indiana in battle of Big Ten’s best big men

Will the Hawkeyes extend their winning streak to six?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the COVID-19 outbreaks striking opponents slated to play the #4 Iowa Hawkeyes (12-2, 6-1), it puts the Hawks in the middle of a 20-day stretch with just four games on the docket. Tonight’s opponent, the Indiana Hoosiers (8-6, 3-4), are amidst their own stretch where games are sparse: five in 20 days and their first since last Thursday’s loss to Purdue.

The delay in getting new games on the schedule is a different column for a different day, but the R&R should mean two teams who are rearing to go.

Archie Miller is now in his fourth year as the IU head coach, and has accumulated 63-49 record in Bloomington. However, the Hoosiers have yet to finish above .500 in conference play in his four seasons, none of which have resulted in an NCAA berth. To be fair, KenPom has them as a 10-seed last year.

Though Indiana is a more defensive-minded squad than the Hawks at 27th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, their conference-only numbers are slightly worse than Iowa’s in raw points/possession. Their best statistics are of the possession-reducing variety with the #1 defensive rebounding rate and #4 turnover rate in the Big Ten.

Offensively, it’s less rosy, as a slow pace, poor outside shooting, and reduced emphasis on offensive rebounding (presumably to limit opponents’ transition opportunities) have limited the Hoosiers to just one conference game where they’ve scored more than 80 points in regulation, a win against Nebraska. An overtime win against Penn State, 87-84, is the only other time they’ve eclipsed the figure in Big Ten play.

Bracket Matrix currently has them as an 11-seed, with their only win against a similarly slotted Stanford team as their lone win against current tournament teams. So they’re big game hunting

Three guys

Trayce Jackson-Davis (F, 6’9”, 245 lbs): The sophomore big man finds himself all over Big Ten leaderboards (minutes, points, rebounds, free throws, etc.) and is currently the only non-Luka Garza big averaging over 20 points/game. After being an efficient, arguably under-utilized post as a freshman, he’s turned into the main hub of Indiana’s offense at a usage rate exceeding 30% (3rd in the conference) with some dip in efficiency.

He can get it in a variety of areas and make opponents pay, showing impressive ability in dribble drives, though he’s yet to shoot a three this season. He’s worn a path to the free throw line and draws a 6.7 fouls/40 minutes in Big Ten play per KenPom. If there’s a man who can get Garza into foul trouble, it’s Jackson-Davis.

Rob Phinisee (G, 6’1”. 187 lbs): IU’s lead guard has had an up-and-down junior year, most easily demonstrated by his last two games: a four-point outing in a loss to Purdue and a 18-point game with a couple threes in the Nebraska win. He’s elevated his ability to score inside the arc, with his 2-point percentage at 55% in conference play, well above his first two seasons. He’s also seen his turnover rate decline.

Yet he hasn’t demonstrated consistency from behind the arc and has had his assists tail off as the Hoosier offense has migrated to being more post-oriented. Whether Phinisee can make Iowa’s guards work on defense will go a long way in hinting at whether the Hoosiers leave Iowa City with a win.

Race Thompson (F, 6’8”, 228 lbs): The versatile forward is the only other Hoosier outside of TJD who has started all 14 of IU’s games. He brings consistent effort as the classic garbage man with 6.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 0.9 steals per game (all second on the team). He will also allow Davis to rotate off Garza as a viable post defender to give LG a number of looks defensively while being able to overpower or outmaneuver whomever Iowa has guarding him.

Three questions

Who wins the battle from behind the arc? An interesting trend in Fran’s defensive strategy is reaching a fever pitch as Iowa’s consistently high opponent 3PA/FGA is at 48.5% in Big Ten play, the highest in the conference. Thankfully opponents have missed enough of them to impair all but one team’s ability to keep pace with the Hawkeyes. So the shot will be available for IU.

Problem for them is they have by way of reliable outside shooting. Just Armaan Franklin is shooting over 40% on the season and even he is not much of a volume shooter at 47 attempts on the season - Iowa has four with more than that.

Indiana has allowed the highest percentage from behind the arc in Big Ten play this season with teams shooting over 40% against them, the only team with a number that high. Iowa is shooting a league-high 41% from deep.

One might call it a match made in heaven, but weirder things have happened than the best shooting team in conference play having an off night against the worst three-point defensive team.

Can Luka Garza stay on the court? Iowa’s offense can sustain with The Peacock riding pine but the national player of the year frontrunner is what sends Iowa’s offense into hyperdrive. If Jackson-Davis is able to get LG into early foul trouble, it will provide a clear mismatch if Jack Nunge is expected to guard Jackson-Davis for extended periods.

Garza should be comfortable when he is on the court, however, as his only matchup against Jackson-Davis resulted in a 38-point outburst while playing all 40 minutes.

Expect a heavy dose of zone, considering IU’s inability from deep as well as the help it will provide Garza as the primary defender of Jackson-Davis.

Who wins on the margins? With IU’s need to get a signature win on the heels of a rivalry loss (exact same scenario as last season), they have plenty of motivation to notch a win and will look for every edge possible. This includes plays like those Thompson succeeds in and a renewed focus on the offensive boards (they had 16 against Iowa last season).

Iowa will need to play with consistent effort to make things difficult and swing plays via a “first to the floor” mentality. Keegan Murray obviously plays a huge role here but everyone can afford to be a bit more locked in defensively.

The Iowa Hawkeyes have racked up five straight conference wins twice in the last two seasons but couldn’t extend either to six games. The last six game Big Ten winning streak came in 2016, when Iowa won 7 straight and 10 of 11. A strong performance against IU should mean a sixth straight.