With just 11 days left in the Big Ten’s regular season calendar, options are limited for where the #9 Iowa Hawkeyes (17-6, 11-5) may end up in the conference hierarchy. JP has your breakdown here but the cliff notes version is that the Big Ten three seed looks increasingly likely with a win tonight while a loss lowers the margin for error on holding onto the four seed.
By facing the #3 Michigan Wolverines (16-1, 11-1), the odds on favorite for conference champion and near-lock one seed, Iowa enters this game with broader implications. A win on the road against a top five team will do wonders in terms of their NCAA Tournament seeding while a loss, barring complete embarrassment, does not offer significant downside.
As always, such is life in 2021’s Big Ten Conference.
The Wolverines enter tonight on a red carpet laid out by the in-flight schedulers as they do not face the same fate as Nebraska in terms of three straight weeks of three games. This is more comment than criticism, as Michigan has done everything asked of them so far this season, most recently a thrilling victory at #4 Ohio State.
KenPom has them rated sixth offensively and 11th defensively (third overall) and their conference-only efficiencies are third and first, respectively. They’re built around freshman big man, Hunter Dickinson (more on him later), and go five deep on three point shooters over 36%, though Dickinson is not one of them.
Head coach Juwan Howard did an impressive job constructing the roster around three returning starters (Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner) with the big man & grad transfers Mike Smith and Chaundree Brown, who fill in gaps magnificently.
Simply put, Michigan is as balanced a team as they come with depth, experience, and versatility. Howard has them locked in regularly and can morph to the style of their opponent.
Hunter Dickinson (C, 7’1”, 255 lbs): Dickinson is an absolute throwback in the mold of a larger Trayce Jackson-Davis. What he lacks in TJD’s perimeter skills, he makes up for with length and an array of post moves a la Luka Garza. He averages a clean 15 points and 7.8 rebounds to lead UM in both categories while shooting 64% from the floor.
Unlike Garza, who is a “three level scorer,” Dickinson leans on his ability at the rim, with 89% of his shots coming at that distance, according to Pivot Analysis. If his free throw percentage is any indication (75%), he probably could lean on more of a midrange game, but Howard has created his offense to avoid those areas, as they take just 13%* of their shots from midrange.
* Data also from Pivot (for comparison, Iowa shoots roughly the same 13% of their shots from the midrange as Michigan)
Mike Smith (G, 5’11”, 185 lbs): Perhaps the most interesting change from last year’s Wolverines to this years was at PG. Smith has filled in very well despite dropping off statistically from Zavier Simpson’s stat-line. The biggest upgrade he has provided is as a shooter, at 48% from behind the arc. Smith came from a high usage (34% of possessions), lower efficiency situation at Columbia and has essentially cut out all non-catch and shoot jumpers to max out his potential at Michigan.
Does Smith’s ability force Fran McCaffery to slide CJ Fredrick onto him?
Franz Wagner (G, 6’9”, 220 lbs): Brooks, Brown, & Livers are all viable third options here but Wagner possesses as big a potential mismatch as any on Michigan’s roster short of the two listed above. In Wagner, Michigan has a capable shooter, strong driver/finisher, and versatile defender Iowa may not have a clear matchup for. In both games last year, Wagner notched 18 points against Iowa.
Healthy Fredrick probably means Joe Wieskamp or Connor McCaffery get the call. Perhaps a big day for Keegan Murray could be expected as his measurables most cleanly line up with Wagner.
Can the defense continue? In each of the last five games, Iowa’s held its opponent to less than 70 points. It’s a genuinely impressive stat for Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes, as it last happened against Big Ten opponents in 2015. Michigan poses a bigger challenge than any of Iowa’s previous five opponents, who topped out at 30th (Penn State) according to KenPom.
Michigan is third.
If Iowa is able to continue their strong play, it will be as a result of being able to stick with Michigan across the board to limit open three point shots (a tall task) while limiting offensive rebounding, they will have a chance.
Another thing worth monitoring, though it may simply be a function of playing a lot of garbage time with an average conference margin of victory over 10: the Wolverines have a bottom 4 turnover rate in Big Ten play.
Who wins the battle down low? We are likely to hear the story of how Dickinson and Luka Garza have practiced with each other as fellow bigs from the Washington, DC area, so there will be some familiarity between the two. Yet if one can gain an advantage over the other by way of foul trouble, it will take their opponent’s queen off the chess board.
Dickinson, for one, does not play the same amount of minutes as Garza at just under 26/game. It’s not because of foul trouble, as he’s accumulated four fouls just twice in his short career with no foul outs. For what it’s worth, Juwan Howard’s 2-foul participation is at 10%. Still lagging in national rankings but middle of the pack for the conference.
Garza has had his way with Michigan in the last year, though Dickinson could prove different. He’s taken part in forcing 15 fouls on Jon Teske and Austin Davis in two games while 44 & 33 points. Given the way Howard has schemed against Iowa in two attempts, another big day may be on the way for Garza.
Will his “foul trouble” come back to bite him, though? Trayce Jackson-Davis forced him to the bench in Iowa’s rematch with Indiana. Would Fran adjust his philosophy if faced with a similar situation against the #3 team in the country?
Can Iowa play free? There is simultaneously a lot of pressure on Iowa and no pressure at all. Of course the Hawks will be dealing with wanting to maintain control on the double bye but with an eye towards March Madness, they’re playing with house money at the #3 team.
Hopefully getting the monkey off the back with Luka’s record will also enable Iowa to collectively play in the moment without weight of broader expectations.
I’ve already belabored the matchup but it’s as excited as I’ve been for an Iowa game since the matchup with Gonzaga this season. Michigan offers another measuring stick for the Hawkeyes and a win will go a long way if affecting Iowa’s postseason outlook.