Hawkeye fans are riding the high of Thanksgiving break and a return trip to Indianapolis to represent the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship Game. With all that excitement, it’s plausible many an Iowa fan may have lost sight of the basketball program, which is back in action tonight after demolishing their sixth consecutive non-conference opponent on Friday night.
Now, however, the competition steps up considerably as Iowa faces their first road test of this young season. The Hawkeyes are set to travel to Charlottesville, Virginia to take on the Virginia Cavaliers in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
The Cavs got off to a bit of a rough start this season, dropping their season opener to Navy 66-58 before getting blown out by then #15 Houston 67-47 two games later. But since then, Virginia has righted the ship as Tony Bennett has his team entering Monday night’s contest riding a four-game winning streak.
That streak includes wins over Georgia and Providence as the Cavaliers came away the champions at the roman Legends Classic. The most recent win over Lehigh moved Virginia to 47th nationally according to KenPom.
Speaking of KenPom, while the analytics are still dealing with a chunk of input data from last season for the next several weeks, the model is favoring Iowa ever so slightly. KenPom is calling for a 68-67 Hawkeye victory, giving Iowa a 52% chance at winning.
- Which style wins out? The Hawkeyes and Cavaliers could not play a more differing style of basketball. Iowa comes in leading the nation averaging 97.2 points per game (it’s worth pointing out the #2 team, Purdue, is averaging 92.3 ppg) while Virginia ranks 228th nationally at 61.4 points per game. That’s not just a difference in competition or offensive efficiency. According to KenPom, Iowa ranks 25th in adjusted tempo with nearly 73 possessions per game while Virginia is dead last in the nation (358th) at 61 possessions per game. If Iowa can get the Cavs onto the racetrack, they likely win going away. But if the Cavaliers are able to slow this one down and make it a Wisconsin-esque slog, we may see the tortoise outlast the hare.
- How do the Hawkeyes handle real size? While Iowa has looked impressive through six games this year, they have yet to face any real size in the post. That’s point of concern as we begin to look forward to Big Ten play as the Hawkeyes have gotten limited production from sophomore Josh Ogundele and freshman Riley Mulvey. Iowa lacks anyone beyond those two underclassmen over 6’9”. Contrast that to Virginia, which starts sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick at 6’11” and brings 7’1” center Francisco Caffaro off the bench for meaningful minutes. Neither are huge scorers, combining for just under 10 points per game, but they average more than 10 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. The Cavs are unbeaten in the five games this season where they’ve blocked at least five shots, but have lost both games where they came up short on that end. Iowa’s ability to get into the paint for scoring opportunities and finishing over the first set of true bigs they’ve faced will be a significant driver of tonight’s outcome.
- Which star shows up? Hawkeye fans have fallen head over heels for sophomore star Keegan Murray this season as he has led the nation in scoring with 25.7 points per game this young season, but Virginia boasts their own star forward that will likely be matched up with Murray. Jayden Gardner, a 6’7” senior forward, comes into tonight’s matchup leading the Cavs in scoring and rebounds at 13.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Gardner is more of a back-to-the-basket forward who’s shooting over 52% from the floor on the season but has yet to attempt a three. He struggled in Virginia’s loss to Houston, finishing with just 4 points and 2 rebounds, but has had five games in double figures, including an impressive 21 points and 13 rebounds against Providence last week. If Iowa goes man-to-man, Murray will have his hands full in the post and there’s the potential for foul trouble. On the flip side, if Virginia sticks to man, Gardner may be out of his element chasing Murray on the perimeter. The winner of that battle may well will the game.
Tonight’s matchup is the first in the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Iowa is 8-12 all-time in the challenge and have won six of their last eight matchups in the cross-conference event. However, Iowa has won only two road games as part of the Challenge - a 68-52 win over Syracuse in 2019 and a 60-55 win at North Carolina in 2015.
The ACC holds the all-time lead in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge at 12-7-3 having gone 138-113 in individual games. The Big Ten has won the last two challenges, including a 7-5 win in 2020. Iowa defeated North Carolina 93-80 in Iowa City a season ago.
Tip time tonight is set for 6pm CT. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.