There is never a right time to go the wrong direction but the timing of the #15 Iowa Hawkeyes’ (13-6, 7-5) four-losses-in-five-games stretch does allow for some ground to be remade over the last eight games.
Unfortunately for Iowa, the #25 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-6, 7-6) are on a four-game winning streak which saw them return to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. A win tomorrow could put them in fifth place while a Hawkeye win would have them tied with Purdue for fourth.
Since these two last faced off, Rutgers four-game winning streak was preceded by a four-game losing streak (plus the loss to Iowa). Truly a wild stretch. The main reason for their return to form was their offense improving to respectable levels and their defense to borderline elite levels.
In their four wins, they’ve had a point/possession differential of 0.17, an improvement of 0.32 points/possession. Without the division, they went from a -10 points/game to a +11.5 points/game. Their two games against Michigan State highlight the roller coaster ride of their last month: a 68-45 loss and a 67-37 win.
Adding some stress to this game, for me (outside of the two different directions these teams are going), is the last time Iowa played Rutgers at home after leaving Piscataway with a victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat, they got their brakes beaten off in Nicholas Baer’s last home game: 86-72.
Three Four guys
Ron Harper, Jr. (G/F, 6’6”, 245 lbs):
vs. Iowa: 13 points, 5/15 shooting, 3/8 from 3, 6 rebounds
since Iowa: 11.5 PPG, 35% shooting, 14% from 3, 5 RPG
Harper was not written about in the first iteration of this preview, as he was coming off an injury. Prior to the first Iowa game, he was absolutely on fire (22.5 PPG) but has since come back to earth. He’s 1/17 from three in his last four games.
Yeah, he’s going off.
Jacob Young (G, 6’2”, 185 lbs):
vs. Iowa: 17 points, 7/12 shooting, 2/3 from 3, 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 turnovers
since Iowa: 12.8 PPG, 47% shooting, 44% from 3, 1.8 APG, 1 SPG, 3.4 TPG
Young has been, more or less, Rutgers’ rock this season as they have managed injuries. The one area where he is susceptible is turnovers, as his 23.0% turnover rate is second worst on the team (to Mulcahey, below) and anchors the efficiency of his high-usage play.
Paul Mulcahy (G, 6’6”, 210 lbs):
vs. Iowa: 6 points, 2/5 shooting, 3 rebounds, 0 assists
since Iowa: 5 PPG, 40% shooting, 3.75 RPG, 3.25 APG
Mulcahy’s re-entry into the starting lineup aligned with their four game winning streak. He does all the small things and is best used as a facilitator.
Montez Mathis (G, 6’4”, 210 lbs):
vs. Iowa: 13 points, 5/12 shooting, 5 rebounds, 5 assists
since Iowa: 5 PPG, 34% shooting, 2.9 RPG, 3.8 APG
Like Harper, Mathis has gone cold through the teeth of conference play. Like much of Rutgers’ roster, he can do it all and is a feisty perimeter defender, but his recent performance has served as a regression to his career mean.
What is the right expectation for CJ Fredrick going forward? I’ve beat around the bush for a number of previews regarding Fredrick and his injury but we’ve reached the point - that he’s day-to-day for the rest of the season - where it’s fair to wonder if Iowa is placing too much on his presence every game.
The stats bear it out, evidenced by recent analysis by Tom Kakert & Chad Leistikow. Most simply, Iowa wins when Fredrick plays and loses when he doesn’t: 29-9 vs. 4-8. Yikes.
What Fran McCaffery has continually deployed throughout this stretch has felt like a way to bridge Iowa to when the games matter. Well, every game matters when you’re pressing for a conference championship...something now out of reach. Going forward, Iowa needs to restructure in a way which does not let the season writ large get out of hand. That means, understanding Fredrick’s presence is found money the rest of the way and treating him as such.
My armchair analysis is that Keegan Murray does not necessarily provide the starting lineup what it is missing without Fredrick, offensively (CJF is Iowa’s best shooter and an efficient decision maker) and defensively (strong perimeter defender who can take an opponents’ primary ball handler in man-to-man while providing length up top in the zone). In limited time, Ahron Ulis has shown he can provide the defensive prowess of Fredrick and “everything but the shooting” offensively (though he has been Iowa’s best free throw shooter this year).
This allows the bench rotation to stabilize with Joe Toussaint and/or Tony Perkins at guard, Murray and Pat McCaffery on the wing, and Jack Nunge down low. Whenever Fredrick can go, slot him in there instead of Ulis, but ride with a single replacement instead of cobbling it together with minutes from the limited Jordan Bohannon & potentially overworked Joe Wieskamp.
There are other issues surfacing throughout the teeth of conference play as we’ve seen in past seasons. It’s frustrating because of the preseason expectations and capability of the offense to have a “rerun” feel to it.
In 2015 and 2017, though, Iowa finished those seasons strong with winning streaks with much less skill and talent than this team possesses. Yet it will take a program-wide fortitude to finish strong.
They can’t just hope their way to the finish line.