The roller coaster season continues. The collective hope for the Iowa fan base was high coming into the Michigan State game, and while nobody expected Iowa to go undefeated, many people are worried about the way in which Iowa tends to lose games this season. On the bright side, Iowa isn't the only disappointed fan base right now. Minnesota isn't exactly all smiles and rainbows, seeing how their beloved Gophers are 0-4 in conference play and just blew a 9-point lead with about 7 minutes left in the game to a Michigan team that lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The Gophers have defeated two Kenpom top 100 teams all year in #97 Western Kentucky (eh) and #34 Georgia (okay, now we're talking). Outside of those, though, their best win came against #111 Wake Forest and then, past that, it falls all the way to #210 UNC Wilmington. They have three close losses in their first four Big Ten games, so at least they aren't getting blown out in the conference. Yet, at some point, close losses start to feel worse than getting blown out because at least you know what opinion to form about your team.
That's technically not a rational way to view things because close losses mean that your team is better than if they were getting the crap kicked out of them regularly, but emotions are strong and people aren't computers. People like certainty, so it's nice to know if your team is good, so you can make sure not to miss a moment of the season. On the flip side, it's also nice to know if your team is bad, so you can look for better ways to spend your time. When your team is in the gray, middle area, the season can be a maddening roller coaster of emotions. One minute you are on cloud nine and the next you feel like you just got kicked in the metaphysical balls.
Both teams in this match up just so happen to fall into that uncertain gray area. We know that both teams are capable of playing good basketball on any given night, but we also know that it can be crapshoot to try and guess what night that will be. The one absolute about tonight is that one team will win the game and one team will lose the game. We don't know who yet, but we know that there has to be a winner and loser. But while one win tonight doesn't do anything in the long run to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty surrounding the rest of the season for the fan base of either team, a victory can help temporarily ease that angst. That is, until the next loss happens, in which each fan base promptly finds themselves back at square one, again reevaluating whether their team is bad or good.
And with your daily dose of existential philosophy out of the way, let's preview a basketball game.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Monday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, a reminder on how to read this chart: 100 = Division 1 average. Anything above 100 is above average, while anything below 100 is below average. The bigger the number, the better.
Since Big Ten play started, Iowa has basically flip-flopped identities. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, this team was offensively-challenged, and relied on holding opponents to way below 1 point per possession (PPP) on a nightly basis if they wanted any chance to win. Now that that Big Ten foes are filling the Hawkeyes' schedule, they have suddenly become all offense and no defense.
We can talk about the defense in a bit, but Iowa's offense has seemingly improved because they are trying to utilize their length and size down low against opponents who have a tough time matching them inside. During this sudden offensive change, Iowa has decreased their number of long two attempts by 5 percentage points compared against non-conference teams. As a result in the drop of inefficient shots, Iowa has not only seen their shooting percentage on two point field goals increase from 45.6% to 51.7%, but their free throw rate has also sky-rocketed from a below average 0.36 to an amazing 0.59 (attack the basket, draw fouls). Now, Iowa may be taking less inefficient shots from the field, but let's not pretend that they are about to set the Big Ten ablaze with their shooting prowess. Rather, the offense has been more successful because it has not only made up for the lack of shooting by grabbing offensive rebounds and limiting turnovers (that's part of it). What has been the biggest part of the offensive turnaround over the last three games has been Iowa's newfound talent at drawing fouls. Being a team that is below average from the field, but way above average from the charity stripe, it only makes sense that maximizing free throw opportunities would be ideal.
So, can Iowa keep this up against Minnesota?
I think so. Minnesota does only one thing real well on defense, and that's force turnovers. They are a bit like Iowa last season in that they want to get out and run, so they are going to pressure the ball all the way up the court on a majority of possessions all night long, in hopes that the opposing team will get flustered and make a mistake.
The main goal of all this is to use those turnovers in order to kick start their transition game. However, there is a down side to all that pressure. We witnessed firsthand last year what can happen when a defense is too aggressive, and it can cause breakdowns that lead to easy baskets. Without watching more than decent-sized chunks of two Minnesota games this season, I'm going to guess that is at least partly what has happened with the Gophers'. They are the third ranked team in the nation when it comes to forcing turnovers, but they are 145th in eFG% defense, 249th in defensive rebounding, and 206th when it comes to not fouling and putting their opponent on the line. This all seems to be good news for Iowa -- a team that does not shoot the ball very well, but does not give it away often, comes away with offensive rebounds at a nice rate, and has recently rediscovered their knack for getting to the free throw line.
Unlike what happened against Michigan State, Iowa cannot afford to have Aaron White be quiet for large parts of the game, and Jarrod Uthoff has to have a nice shooting night in addition. Iowa will not have quite the same size advantage in the post against Minnesota that they have had against most opponents this season. Maurice Walker is the one guy on this Gopher squad that isn't a liability on the defensive glass and he's also a notorious shot-blocker. Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni are probably in for a battle down low. Although, with the way Olaseni has been playing lately, he may be up for the challenge.
The one clear weak spot I see on Minnesota's defense is at the power forward spot. Minnesota has the size down there, but they just don't seem to have the players. Former Drake Bulldog, Joey King, plays a majority of the minutes at the four spot and, while he's a nice shooter on the offensive side of the ball, he's somewhat of a liability on defensive end. Aaron White should be able to take advantage of the fact that King rebounds like a guard and use that to pick up some second chance points. Also, the fact that Minnesota, as a team, has a hard time not fouling, White should see plenty of trips to the free throw line.
One way Pitino may look to address that weakness is by starting recently-eligible 6'9" power forward, Gaston Diedhiou. Diedhiou has yet to play a minute of college basketball, but Pitino is apparently desperate to switch things ups in hopes that it will get his team going. The Senegalese big man probably won't bring much on offense for the Gophers, but there is a need for defense and rebounding, and that is what Diedhiou may be able to provide. This could be an interesting story within the game to keep an eye on.
Overall, though, I like the Hawkeyes' chances on this side of the ball. The main thing to worry about is turnovers. If Minnesota is forcing them in droves like they want, then this game could get ugly. If Iowa is taking care of the ball all night long, then Minnesota's defense shouldn't present a huge problem. I know both units are closely ranked by Kenpom, but I give Iowa the slight advantage here.
When Minnesota has the Ball
Just like on defense, Minnesota's offense relies on them doing one thing well: shooting. On the year, their 53.1% eFG% is 37th in the nation. Meanwhile, their other three factors are no better than 151st in the country, and when it comes to getting to the free throw line, they are ranked an abysmal 224th. To add to the already building concern around being 0-4 in conference play, the Gophers' eFG% has actually dropped to 45.8% (10th in the Big Ten) against Big Ten foes. Yes, that's a small sample size, but I think it also shows that Big Ten teams know what they need to do to stop Minnesota's offense, and that's to stop them from getting out in transition.
When you look at Minnesota's overall stats, their 70 possessions per game are third most nationally and their average offensive possession lasts only 15.9 seconds. When we look at what has happened in Big Ten play, we see that drop to 64.5 possessions per game, with a normal possession usually lasting 17.5 seconds. Those numbers are still the 4th most possessions and the 2nd quickest possessions in the conference, but that's not where Minnesota wants to play. And an increased need to run a half court offense has led to a precipitous decline in their shooting ability. Their offensive rebounding has actually been much better during this little four game streak, but that hasn't actually helped them win any games.
Now, slowing the game down is something Iowa can do and something that will probably help them if they want to win this game. Their two huge road victories against up tempo teams in North Carolina and Ohio State were played at 62 and 61 possessions, respectively. And looking at the four factor chart above, Iowa seems to match up pretty well with the Gophers. My only concern has been the defensive play over the past three games. It has been very inconsistent, and I would say the defense only played about 10 minutes of good basketball against Michigan State. Out of all Big Ten teams, Iowa's defensive four factors currently rank like this in conference play:
- eFG%- #12
- Turnovers- #11
- Defensive Rebounding- #9
- Free Throw Rate- #3
Free throw rate has held strong, but the other three have been sorely lacking three games in. It's a small sample size, and some of that could be random variation, but allowing Shavon Shields to drive the basket over and over again, and leaving Travis Trice open over and over again, is just bad defense.
If Iowa's defense picks up their play, I think they can slow this Minnesota team down. However, the recent defensive display has me nervous, because even though Minnesota is 0-4 in conference play, they have some very good players. They can play inside with Maurice Walker, but they can also shoot from outside. Like Michigan State, they won't drop bomb after bomb on you from long range, but they do make them at a high clip when they shoot them. That was a difference in the Michigan State game, and I'd be lying if said it doesn't have me worried here.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
Per usual, Iowa's opponent is much better at shooting the ball.
Yet again, per usual, the Hawkeyes are the much better shooting team from the free throw line, but their opponent shoots a much higher percentage from the field.
As far as style goes, both teams shoot from inside the arc more than your run-of-the-mill Division I team, while their defenses both see teams put up a normal shot distribution against them.
When we look at points, we see how important free throws are to this Iowa team. They are the 7th best free throw shooting team in the nation (when they aren't shooting 3-10 in the second half against Michigan State), and they are currently the best Big Ten team in conference play when it comes to getting to the free throw line. That is an important combination for a team that struggles to shoot from the floor.
Minnesota, meanwhile, relies heavily on points from two point field goals, and a bit more than normal from long range, as well. Because they are so poor from the free throw line, it's not surprising that they get a below average percentage of their points from the stripe.
Opposing Players to Know
Maurice Walker is the first guy to discuss with this Minnesota team because he is the most consistent guy on game-by-game basis. The 6'10" 250 lb. senior uses the most possessions when he is on the floor, and is extremely efficient when it comes to scoring near the rim.
Walker will frequently post up and go to work on his man all game long. With a 61.2% eFG%, he rarely misses, but when he does, he is also a threat to grab the offensive rebound to continue the possession or clean up on the second attempt.
If there is one small chink in his armor, or one reason why his offensive efficiency is only at 106 this season, it's largely because he has a bit of a turnover problem. But it's not like it's a gigantic weakness, as he is still a threat to post a double-double on a nightly basis. And if the turnovers were an issue, he helps make up for that with his value on the defensive glass, blocking shots, and coming away with steals.
After Walker, Andre Hollins is an inconsistent senior who could go off on any night, as well. Outside of scoring from the field, he doesn't amaze you with anything else he does. His turnover rate is higher than his assist rate and he doesn't get to the line very often. But he does score, and he is scoring almost 13 points per game this season.
He's a bit inefficient from inside the arc this season, but he is shooting 38% from long distance. He is one of the guys to be on the lookout for from outside.
A third player averaging almost 13 points per game is the new-comer out of junior college, Carlos Morris. The 6'5" small forward is a decent shooter from three, but he's at his best when he's getting to the basket.
He's one of the Minnesota players that appears to be more comfortable out on the break, than he does in the half court game. When I watched him against Maryland, he seemed to settle for contested jumpers on a number of shots in the half court offense, and that is what Iowa will want him to do.
Outside of his scoring, Morris, like Hollins, doesn't do a whole lot else. His turnover rate is also higher than his assist rate and his free throw rate isn't all that impressive, either. But, with a steal rate that Kenpom puts at 53rd in the nation, he is one of the guys that helps this squad create turnovers.
The above mentioned three players are all responsible for about 25% of Minnesota's shots apiece when they are on the floor. They are the main offensive weapons. After them, the offense runs with the speedy Deandre Mathieu at point guard. He has the 32nd highest assist rate in the nation, but turnovers are an issue for him. In fact, over four Big Ten games this year he has just 8 assists to 17 turnovers. That's clearly not ideal if you are Richard Pitino, but I still worry about how Iowa will deal with his speed. Can Mike Gesell or Anthony Clemmons keep him from getting into the middle of the defense? If not, that could open up things from distance or leave Walker with some good looks at the rim. And I should also mention steals, because Mathieu has the 17th best steal rate in the nation.
Off the bench, freshman Nate Mason is a guy to keep an eye on. He can come off the bench and give Mathieu a breather at point guard, but he mostly spells or moves Hollins down to small forward when Carlos Morris needs a break. He shoots from all over the floor, but most importantly, he is hitting 42% of his threes this season. And, unlike a lot of Minnesota's players, he hasn't shown a propensity for turning the ball over yet. But he has shown the propensity to force turnovers as a freshman, as he has the best steal rate on the team and the 12th best in the country.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Ranking: Iowa #45, Minnesota #46
Projected Score: Iowa 69 (35%), Minnesota 73 (65%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.97, Minnesota 1.03
Projected Possessions: 71
Iowa and Minnesota are essentially equals currently in the eyes of Kenpom's algorithm. Iowa is ranked one spot higher, but Minnesota gets the nod in a close game because they are the home team. If this game were at Iowa, as it is on February 12th, Iowa would be the one projected to win 73-69. Either way, I don't have a real problem with this projection, except for the fact that the possessions might be too high. Iowa has shown this year that they will play up tempo, but they have only broken 70 possessions in 6 of their 16 games this season; and Iowa State and Pepperdine were the only Kenpom-ranked top 100 teams that they did it against. Minnesota wants to get out and run, but I think Iowa slows them down to something like the mid-sixties.
Outside of that, I feel like this game hinges on Iowa's offense not turning the ball over, and Iowa's defense not doing whatever the hell they've mostly been doing since the schedule turned to the Big Ten. For whatever reason, I feel more comfortable in predicting that Iowa's offense will do fine against Minnesota's defense than I do about Iowa's defense stopping Minnesota's high-powered attack. I know we are dealing with a small sample size of three games, but it's been such a drastic change from how the Hawkeyes looked in the non-conference slate of games. If this continues, I'd be curious to see what teams went from relying on all defense in the first half of the season to relying on all offense in the latter half. That seems like quite the dramatic in-season switch for a team that hasn't been dealt any bad injuries and hasn't really switched playing time up all that much.
But, again, that's projecting a small sample into the future. What really matters right now is the present, and what's at hand in the present is a basketball game with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It's still too early in the year to say that this game is a must win, but this is a winnable game and it's always nice to seal the deal on the winnable games, rather than relying on upsets against teams where you are the underdog. This game looks to also be a close contest, and part of what makes a winning team... well, a winning team, is the ability to win close games. Hopefully Iowa can show they are a winning team on Tuesday night.
Or they could go ahead and blow the filthy rodents out of the water. I'd be just fine with that, too.