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#8 Hawkeyes face #7 Ohio State in top 10 showdown

Iowa is looking for their first marquee win of the season

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Two nights after getting off the schneid, the #8 Iowa Hawkeyes (13-4, 7-3) will face their highest-ranked conference opponent to date in the #7 Ohio State Buckeyes (14-4, 8-4). Short of the conference-leading Michigan Wolverines, the Buckeyes are the hottest team in the conference, winning six of seven and shooting up the rankings throughout January.

Having played 12 games, they’ve been able to notch some really good wins - Rutgers, Illinois, and Wisconsin...all on the road - which validates their high ranking. They’ve lost twice to Purdue and at Minnesota & then-conference-leading* Northwestern Wildcats.

*Wild times

It’s their fourth season under Chris Holtmann and they’ve good-to-really good, with an 80-38 record (42-28 in conference) with three top 20 ratings, per KenPom, including this season’s 10-spot.

The Buckeyes are a template for Iowa to follow in terms of how much difference a month can make in terms of a team’s fortunes. They’ve done it on the back of being balanced with the #3 per-possession offense (1.11 PPP) and #4 per-possession defense (1.01 PPP) in conference.

They are, perhaps, the toughest task Iowa has faced to date in conference play so Iowa will have to bring it.

Three guys

E.J. Liddell (F, 6’7”, 240 lbs): Ohio State’s leading scorer and rebounder plays bigger than his height as the tip of the Buckeyes’ spear, offensively. He’s absolutely yoked, livins inside the arc to get his points (58% vs 27%). In conference, he’s drawing the second highest fouls/40 minutes per KenPom at 6.8 and hits them at a 75% clip. He also averages 1.6 offensive rebounds a game.

If there’s an area where Iowa can take advantage, Liddell has not necessarily demonstrated premier passing, with no assists and six turnovers over the last 4 games and a 1.1:1.4 assist:turnover ratio on the season. He also doesn’t necessarily need to be a great passer as he shot 19/29 from 2 and 26/33 at the charity stripe over those 3 games.

For what it’s worth, the way Liddell plays has him slotted as Ohio State’s center per KenPom’s algorithm. Whomever draws the assignment (Connor McCaffery? Keegan Murray?? Luka Garza???) will be in for a tough time.

Kyle Young (F, 6’8”, 225 lbs): Holtmann’s starter alongside Liddell in the front court will get the first crack at Garza and will be able to match LG’s effort on both sides of the floor. While the senior big averages just 8 points/game he lives on the offensive boards (2/game, 9.8% offensive rebounding rate) and is an efficient scorer with a top 5 eFG% in conference play (66.7%). The question will be if he can actually credibly defend Garza like a number of post defenders have been able to of late despite the height and weight disadvantage. If OSU is required to send double-team after double-team, it should open up Iowa’s perimeter for shots and cuts, depending on who is on the floor. Otherwise, it’ll be long for Mr. Young and whomever else might get a crack at Garza, though OSU’s roster has nobody over 6’8” getting playing time.

Duane Washington (G, 6’3”, 210 lbs): The junior point guard is Ohio State’s highest usage player despite being inefficient. I suspect some of this is a result of being the last guy with the ball in extended possessions (OSU rates very low in offensive possession length). However, his 34% shooting from two could be cured simply by playing worse defenders, which Iowa has a propensity to play along the perimeter.

To his credit, he’s a knockdown shooter (not OSU’s best...that’s Kyle Ahrens) at 37% from deep and 90% from the line. Whether he is able to bail out the Buckeyes after solid defensive possessions from Iowa may be the difference in this game.

Three questions

Can Iowa continue winning the free throw battle? After shooting more free throws than 13 of their first 14 opponents, the Hawkeyes lost by wide margins against Indiana (35 to 21) and Illinois (17 to 6). Tuesday night’s 35 to 15 against Michigan State was a return to the mean for Iowa, despite Tom Izzo’s best wishes.

Ohio State, though, has outshot opponents from the line in 14 of their 18 contests and have some of the best free throw shooters in the conference to enhance their advantage they get at the line.

If Iowa can get to the line, they absolutely have to take advantage. 66% won’t get it done without the volume the Hawks had against Sparty and I’ll pay particular attention to any missed one-and-ones which prevent a second free throw, as well.

How much does the rotation resemble what we saw against MSU? This is, once again, a thinly veiled way to first ask: what shape is CJ Fredrick in? Then, how long does Fran McCaffery stick with Jordan Bohannon?

If there’s anything to discern from Fran’s postgame comments about Fredrick, it’s that his playing time is probably on a downward trend. I’ve probably underreacted to Fredrick’s impact - he generally guards the opponent’s best perimeter player to open games and provides secondary ballhandling in addition to his stellar shooting - because losing Iowa’s fourth or fifth most important player shouldn’t mean that much.

What it does show is that Iowa’s offense with the starters is basically a chain where it’s only as strong as its weakest link...right now, that’s Fredrick.

As for Bohannon, if he’s firing on all cylinders, he remains Iowa’s best choice as point guard but...if Fredrick can’t go, Joe Toussaint and Bohannon must get time on the court together with Bohannon as the offensive facsimile of Fredrick off-the-ball. Iowa has had some success running set plays for Bohannon and really, I would like to see more of that than Bo simply “hunting” shots like he is wont to do.

As far as Tony Perkins and Ahron Ulis...both guys are looking great in their limited minutes and both seem to have very discrete roles - Perkins as Fredrick’s “break in case of emergency” and the same for Ulis and the PG position. Savvy ballplayers who provide an increasingly high floor and impressive ceiling. (Have you seen Tony Perkins sky for a rebound??) If they can keep doing what they’re doing, the present looks as bright as the future.

How does Iowa defend OSU’s inside-out game? Go ahead and make your “Iowa defense” joke here.

Alright, now that we have that out of the way, we can overreact to Iowa’s defense dropping to 119th in KenPom after the MSU win. Pay no mind to the fact that the difference between the first and fifth offense (5.8) is the same as the 119th and the 35th defenses. Would you really feel that much different if Iowa had the #5 offense and #35 defense? I suspect not.

Rant over.

Anyways, Iowa can more or less sell out to stop Liddell so long as they don’t sag too far off of Ohio State’s shooters (Washington & Ahrens are the only two shooting over 35% from deep). OSU is too dangerous in the lane to stick with guys at the arc for the sake of appeasing fans wanting no team to have open shots. Iowa just doesn’t have that personnel.

Unless it goes all subs again.

So far this season, Iowa has developed impressive depth while maintaining their offense around the gravitational force that is Luka Garza. Yet they haven’t notched a marquee win in the 13 they have accumulated, they’ve just been opponents’ marquee wins.

With Ohio State, they have the ability to flip that narrative.