Iowa State (6-2) at Iowa (7-2)
Date: December 7, 2012
Time: 7:00pm CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, IA
Line: Iowa -3.5
A few weeks ago, in my preview of the Virginia Tech game, I discussed the notion of Fran McCaffery being able to tick off accomplishments on a checklist for his rebuilding effort at Iowa. He was able to tick off a few boxes last year -- finish with a winning record, win a Big Ten Tournament game, make a postseason tournament -- but there are obviously several more to go on that checklist. In the the context of that post, the next accomplishment to check off was a win in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Unfortunately, things went poorly in Iowa's game with Virginia Tech and we'll have to wait until 2013 to see if we can finally mark that box. But tonight brings a new opportunity to check off something on that checklist: beat Iowa State.
Fran has a 3-3 record overall against Iowa's in-state rivals, but it's only that "good" thanks to a 2-0 mark against Drake. He's 1-1 against UNI (with a 20-point loss last season) and 0-2 against Iowa State. Both games against Iowa State have been close-ish -- they lost 75-72 in Iowa City two years ago and 86-76 in Ames last year (though I remember the game being a bit more lopsided than that final score suggests) -- but they've still been losses. Fran can downplay the rivalry if he likes, but it's real and it's a series where Iowa could really use a win (they've lost three in a row to ISU in hoops altogether).
But even leaving aside the in-state rivalry aspect of the game, it's still a crucial game because of what it represents: a chance to record a resume-boosting non-conference win. Iowa's had two cracks at picking up a quality non-conference win (against Wichita State and Virginia Tech) and they've been found wanting both times (or, in the case of the game with the Hokies, very wanting). Iowa State has a KenPom ranking of 34th, better than any other non-conference Iowa has played (or will play), save Wichita State. (Curiously, their RealTimeRPI ranking is much lower -- 106th, which is actually 8 spots below Iowa.) This game (and, to a lesser extent, the UNI game next weekend) are Iowa's only chances to strengthen their resume before Big Ten play tips off. Of course, that cuts both ways -- while Iowa has struggled in their games this season against better competition, so has Iowa State. They've dropped games to Cincinnati (KenPom ranking: 15) and UNLV (20), and among their six wins the best have come against BYU (71) and Florida Gulf Coast (104). Beating Iowa would also be their best non-conference win.
Since that humbling loss to the Hokies, Fran has tweaked Iowa's starting lineup, sending Zach McCabe to the bench and bringing in Anthony Clemmons, which has necessitated some personnel shifting: Clemmons has supplanted Gesell as the starting point guard, Gesell has moved to the two spot, Marble has moved to the wing, and White has gone back to the four. The change has certainly paid dividends already: Iowa's averaging 87.5 ppg in their last two outings and the offense has looked far crisper with Clemmons directing things -- the ball movement has been sharper, the passing has been very good, and the shooting has improved. (Clemmons himself has a very solid 26-8 assist-turnover ratio this year.)
Of course, it's not that hard to look good against South Dakota and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi -- doing so against Iowa State is another matter. The Cyclones are giving up 64.8 ppg this year and holding teams to 37% FG shooting and just 24.8% shooting from 3FG (an ominous sign for an Iowa team that already struggles to connect from long range). They also rebound very well (45.6 rpg, good for 3rd-best in the nation), especially on the offensive glass (40.3%). Rebounding could be critical in this game, so Iowa will need big efforts out of Aaron White, Adam Woodbury, and Melsahn Basabe on that front. They can't afford to lose position and give Iowa State too many second or third chances. The other thing Iowa will need to do is defend well; both Iowa State and Iowa like to run and score a lot, but Iowa can't let things get out of hand. Two of Iowa's last three games against better opponents (Oregon, Wichita State, Virginia Tech) have become defense-free track meets; Iowa can't let that happen again here.
Finally, this game also presents a fascinating contrast in roster construction. Assuming Fran rolls out the same lineup he's started the last two games, Iowa will go with three freshmen and no seniors. In comparison, Iowa State's likely starting lineup includes four seniors (Chris Babb, Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, and Anthony Booker) and one junior (Melvin Ejim). Iowa State will have a massive advantage in experience (albeit with other teams, mostly) and maturity, which could be critical if this is a close game late. This season is all about the maturation process for Iowa, both individually and as a team, and this game is the next step in that process. Let's see what we've got.