With Thursday’s Ohio State game postponed due to weather, your, my, and our Iowa Hawkeyes (14-7, 4-6) return to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Sunday afternoon to conclude the season series with the hated, no good Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-8, 2-8).
You may remember that Iowa previously defeated the Gophers in Williams Arena on January 16, holding off a furious comeback to win, 81-71. Iowa was in cruise control for most of that game, ballooning the lead out to 23 on multiple occasions against a short-handed Gopher team in the midst of a COVID outbreak (their next game, at Penn State, was postponed as a result and has yet to be played). Iowa led by 20, 68-48, with 9:41 remaining when Minnesota hit the after-burners. That 68-48 lead was reduced to 74-71 after a Jamison Battle bomb from 3 with 1:30 left.
Our hero, Keegan Murray, had other plans, making a big balls 3 of his own as the shot clock expired to push the lead back to 6. The Gophers didn’t score again and Iowa pushed the lead to 10 from the charity stripe for the final margin.
2022 hasn’t been kind to Minnesota, as they’ve lost 7 of 8 to fall to 13th in the Big Ten, above only winless Nebraska (if you thought I couldn’t work a Nebraska angle in here, think again). Their lone win of the calendar year is a 3-point win against Rutgers. Since the win over Rutgers, the Gophers entered a brutal stretch of Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue and lost all three games. They sort of hung around with Ohio State and Wisconsin, but lost by 15 to Purdue in a game the Gophers never led (Purdue shot 55.6 percent from the floor and outrebounded the Gophers by 20; they just hammer teams when they’re on). Whatever the case, Ohio State-Wisconsin-Purdue is a brutal stretch of games for anyone in this league.
We know what Iowa has done of late and rehashing it will just make me mad. To the projected starters!
G - Payton Willis (Sr.; 6-4, 200) 16.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 49.6 percent from the floor, 36.8 mpg
G - E.J. Stephens (Sr.; 6-3, 176) 11.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.6 apg, 44.4 percent from the foor, 33.1 mpg
G - Luke Loewe (Sr.; 6-4, 186) 7.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, 37.7 percent from the floor, 34.1 mpg
F - Jamison Battle (Jr.; 6-7, 225) 17.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.8 apg, 46.6 percent from the floor, 37.1 mpg
F - Eric Curry (Sr.; 6-9, 240) 8.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 0.8 apg, 44.8 percent from the floor, 27.8 mpg
This will be Iowa’s first look at Curry this year, as he missed the meeting in Minneapolis through injury sustained in the game prior, a 2-point loss at Michigan State that was decided on what was essentially a buzzer-beater (Joey Hauser layup with less than a second left). He’s their best rebounder, just ahead of Battle. Battle and Stephens, who transferred to Minnesota from George Washington and Lafayette respectively, were tough to handle in the first game, combining for 42 points. Battle in particular was a handful down the stretch - he shot 4-7 from 3 and all 4 makes were in the run that cut the Iowa lead to 3 before Keegan saved the day.
Another player that gave Iowa problems in the first meeting was Treyton Thompson. He played just 11 minutes and it felt like it wasn’t enough given Minnesota’s lack of available players and size in the first matchup. He’s thin as a rail - listed at just 190 pounds - but he gave Iowa fits due to the fact that, well, he’s just a tall human being at 6-11 and he’s equipped with Go-Go Gadget arms. He’s decently mobile too. He scored 8 points in those 11 minutes and was a big part of the late run that got the Gophers back in the game. He played 40 minutes in the Rutgers game, but has since averaged 11 minutes a night as Curry made his way back into the rotation. Given Iowa’s lack of height, we might see more of Thompson on Sunday.
Can the Hawkeyes bounce back?
I have other questions - how to split up minutes given noted sharpshooter Connor McCaffery is uncertain and how to get the offense back on track overall, to name two - but it’s second verse, same as the first as this is a repeat of Boiler’s question before the awful-then-awesome-then-awful-again Penn State game. Simply, can Iowa bounce back from what felt like a soul-crushing loss and get in the win column again? The Penn State loss felt like it did legitimate damage - I was livid Monday night and described it as a torpedo in Iowa’s tournament hull the next morning - but it hasn’t affected Iowa’s standing that much in tools used by the committee. They’re still hanging in the top 25 in most rankings - Kenpom has the Hawks at 22nd as of Friday morning, while NET has Iowa 24th (Minnesota, meanwhile, is 94th and 87th, respectively). Given Iowa’s lack of decline in those metrics, I’m not sure how damaging Monday was. It felt terrible in real time, and might still be down the road, but that’s largely due to Iowa almost stealing a win despite not playing well. Now that we’re a few days removed from that game plus it was on the road and the road can be tricky in this league, it doesn’t look or feel like the death blow it felt like Monday night.
Sunday though? Iowa cannot afford to lose this game. A loss for Iowa is the actual death blow I/we thought Monday night was. It’s one thing to get in a tough stretch and lose to Final Four-caliber teams in Carver. That’s happened twice with Illinois and Purdue. There’s no shame in losses to teams that, if they’re right in March, could be playing in the final weekend of the season. It’s another to lose to Minnesota in Carver. There’s definitely shame there. This is a Minnesota team that, while competitive in a lot of games and containing a few good players, has still lost most of those games and went from 10-1 on December 22 to 11-8 on February 2 after the Purdue loss. That’s a span of 42 days. They’re unlikely to participate in any March Situations. It’s a game Iowa should win.
Lose and we should begin preparations for the NIT.