It's finally here. Iowa's biannual basketball rivalry with Wisconsin tips off tonight. I don't know whether or not Badger fans consider it a rivalry, but I do and I don't care what anyone else thinks. There is no other team and no other coach in Big Ten college basketball that I despise more than Wisconsin and their evil leader Bo Ryan. Sure, Iowa has actually had more success against Bo Ryan than against Tom Izzo during the Fran McCaffery era, but it's also that success for Iowa that I think helps to make it a rivalry. Wisconsin has been victorious in the last three match ups, but Iowa came out on top the three times before that. The Badgers hold the overall series lead 32-30 since 1981, but the average score of each game since then leans 68-66 in favor of Iowa.
Of course, you also have the media narrative to add fuel to the fire. Ben Brust may be gone, but Jarrod Uthoff is still around and he's a bigger part of this Iowa team than ever. And don't forget the Frantrum from last season's game in Madison. You can bet the broadcast announcers will hit on those points multiple times tonight.
All of what I just mentioned, though, is what makes this series fun. It is usually a hard-fought, competitive game between two teams and two coaches who play very different styles of basketball and don't seem to care too much for each other. Wisconsin is the better team right now, but let's not act like Iowa upsetting them would send shockwaves through the college basketball landscape. The Hawkeyes are a good team when they remember to play to their strengths. And if they can get this whole second half defensive collapse thing under control this should be a competitive game.
When Iowa has the Ball
I know this chart doesn't look all that promising for Iowa on offense right off the bat. The only area in which Wisconsin does not excel is forcing turnovers, but they never do under Bo Ryan. His defense doesn't really give a damn about turnovers. His team contests shots much better than Iowa shoots the ball, and he wants to make the Hawkeyes work for a majority of the shot clock before throwing up a contested jumper. Wisconsin is also the best team in the nation when it comes to defensive rebounding and they aren't much further behind that when it comes to limiting opponents' trips to the line either. So Iowa's two big factors on offense, offensive rebounding and free throw rate, appear as if they might be stymied, right?
Well, yes, maybe. However, that doesn't mean Iowa can't have success against this Wisconsin defense. Remember, the numbers in the chart above take into account the non-conference portion of the schedule, and Iowa is not the same team that they were up until late December. Since starting Big Ten play, Iowa is #2 in the Big Ten in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. They have not only been the best team in the conference at getting to the free throw line and the second best at hauling in offensive rebounds, but they have been second in the conference in shooting too. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has still been great at keeping opponents off the line and limiting offensive boards, but their conference opponents so far are shooting a collective 51.7% eFG% from the floor, which is good for #11 in the conference. Even better, they are allowing opponents to make 51.2% of their two point shots during this time frame, and Iowa is more comfortable inside the arc than from outside it.
Oddly enough, I feel pretty confident that this offense can actually average more than a point per possession against this defense. Iowa doesn't have the usual height and length advantage that they normally do against most opponents, so it's not like it's going to be open season in the post all night. But that doesn't mean Iowa shouldn't try to feed the ball to their strength either. Getting the ball inside is still a good idea because it increases the odds of getting to the free throw line. And Aaron White has been able to get to the foul line against Wisconsin in the past. Over his last four games against the Badgers White has had free throw attempt totals of 8, 4, 15, and 11. One of those is less ideal than the others, but it's not impossible that the veteran foul-drawer could work his craft to perfection against a team that is always one of the best limiting opponent free throw attempts.
Outside of the obvious need for Aaron White to do his usual thing, Iowa will likely need at least double-digits and the whole host of other things (rebounds, blocks, etc.) that Jarrod Uthoff usually brings to the table. Three point shooting would probably be the biggest thing he could provide against a Wisconsin team that will no doubt make more triples tonight than we would all like.
And then there is the whole point guard situation for the Badgers. With Traevon Jackson out for this game and the next one against Iowa, Bronson Koenig will be the main guy at the point for the near future. I'm not sure who the backup is, but I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if Josh Gasser was used to spell Koenig at times. My point here being, is that guard play could be important for Iowa on offense in this one. Mike Gesell has a quicker first step than both Koenig and Gasser (we've seen him go toe-to-toe with Nate Mason and Shannon Scott recently), so if he can get in the middle consistently, that will hopefully open up a lot of assist opportunities for him. That could also open up a lot of scoring opportunities as well, but I just hope he is smart about not getting his shot blocked by Wisconsin's forest of trees inside.
With the way Iowa's offense has looked since Big Ten play started, I think they can win the battle on this side of the ball against the Badgers. They will most likely need to continue to shoot the ball well, because free throws and offensive rebounds may not be as plentiful as usual, but if their shot selection is where it should be, they should be fine.
Oh, and a handful of fast break points would also help break up the monotony of long half court possessions for the Hawkeyes. So let's see some of those too.
When Wisconsin has the Ball
As optimistic as I am about the offense, unfortunately, I can't say the same about the defense here. Wisconsin has the third best adjusted offensive efficiency in the nation and the best in the conference. Iowa, meanwhile, has been pretty awful on defense during Big Ten play (especially in the second half), posting the 13th best adjusted defensive efficiency in a conference of 14 teams. The one thing they are still doing is limiting free throw attempts, but their eFG% allowed is #10 in the conference, turnovers forced is #11, and their defensive rebounding comes in at #12. Luckily, Wisconsin doesn't seem to put an emphasis on offensive rebounding (whether that is by design or just personnel skill set, I don't know), so Iowa might have a chance at limiting second chance points. Unfortunately, Wisconsin doesn't miss all that often. They also don't give the ball up very often, and that could make it difficult for Iowa to get easy baskets out on the break.
I'll get to the individual players in a bit, but from a macro aspect, Wisconsin, per usual, has the perfect personnel to run their patented swing offense this year. Each guy on the court can handle the basketball, is a capable three point shooter, and just about everyone can post their man up on the block. They are a smart, disciplined offense that will no doubt get their fair share of good looks against Iowa's defense.
So, yes, I think Iowa's offense can succeed against Wisconsin's defense, but I don't think it can outperform Wisconsin's offense, especially on the road.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
Just as Bo Ryan likes it, this Wisconsin team has very few cold spots from the floor.
Yet again, Iowa comes into this game only out-shooting their opponent from the line. But, unlike some of their past foes, Wisconsin is one of the better free throw shooting teams in the nation, so it's not a gigantic advantage.
Defensively, Wisconsin's opponents have had less success against the Badgers inside the three point line. As for Iowa, their opponents have had worse luck from long range.
When we look at shooting tendencies, it's no surprise that Wisconsin shoots more threes than Iowa does. What is a bit more interesting is that this Wisconsin team shoots them at a lower rate than most recent Badger squads. In fact, you have to go back to the 2008-2009 season to find a Wisconsin team that took a fewer percentage of their field goal attempts from distance than this year's team. One thing to note, however, is that all could change a little with the substitution of Koenig for Jackson into the lineup, as Jackson was bigger on shooting from closer range than Koenig is.
As far as points are concerned, we already know that free throws are huge for Iowa. Wisconsin, though, doesn't give up many points from the line because they rarely let opponents visit there. Hopefully Iowa can find a way to get there tonight, or they will need to rely on their shooting to carry them.
And, for Wisconsin, they basically have a pretty normal scoring profile. A little more emphasis on two pointers, but that is because they are 7th in the nation at shooting from inside the three point line.
Opposing Players to Watch
Can I just say everybody? Because, seriously, that would be easier.
If I must expound further, Frank Kaminsky is the obvious first guy to mention. He is a 7-footer that can do a little bit of everything. Can he post his guy up and back them down on the block, you ask? Yes, he can.
Can he knock down the three after setting a ball screen? Yep, he can do that too.
Can he break his man down off the dribble and attack the rim? *sigh* Yeah, he has been known to do that.
And not to beat the point into the ground, but he can also handle the ball in transition and find the open man.
Kaminsky has a skill set that you don't see come around very often, especially not in a 7-footer. He uses the most possessions on the team and takes the most shots when he's on the floor, and there really isn't anywhere he can't shoot from.
He's also the next best assist man after Wisconsin's two point guards and he never turns the ball over. On the defensive end, he's a vacuum cleaner on the defensive boards (27th in the nation) and a great shot-blocker to boot. And if all that wasn't enough, he's also currently first in Kenpom's player of the year rankings. Yeah, he's pretty good that his whole basketball thing.
Now, 17 points per night from a player like that would normally make any team a threat by himself alone, but Wisconsin just so happens to have quite a few more weapons. Nigel Hayes is probably one of the most improved players in the country this season. He had a fine freshman campaign last season, but his 12 points per game on top of Sam Dekker's 12 points per game, gives Wisconsin a trio of players that can go off on any given night.
Like just about every other Bo Ryan player, Hayes can shoot from everywhere on the floor. However, he does shoot more twos than threes, and is good at drawing fouls.
Outside of scoring, Hayes is the best offensive rebounder on the team and the second best defensive rebounder among players that play significant minutes.
And then we have Dekker. The third big scoring option for the Badgers is a meh rebounder for his size, but he is probably Wisconsin's best player in transition and he is at his best when driving to the rim and throwing it down.
He's a 35% three point shooter this year, but two-thirds of his shots come from inside the arc, so Uthoff will have to keep him away from the rim.
Traevon Jackson would have been the next leading scorer after the big three, but without him, Wisconsin is left with a bunch of role players that fill their roles to perfection and a handful of younger players who will probably follow the Bo Ryan program during the offseason and bust out next year.
The big role player on the team is the starting shooting guard, Josh Gasser, who takes over 70% of his attempts from distance and makes 40% of them. A weird quirk about Gasser's game, is that he takes so many shots from deep, yet he has the best free throw rate on the team. Weird.
After Gasser, Duje Dukan comes off the bench at the power forward position. Dukan could probably start on a lot of Big Ten teams, but he is a reserve on this team because of the above mentioned Kaminsky, Hayes, and Dekker. Dukan has his own talents, though, and he will be a force on the defensive glass, and he's another Wisconsin big man who can shoot from downtown. As if they didn't have enough of those already.
And, lastly, I should mention the guy who is taking Jackson's spot, Bronson Koenig. At 6'4", he's probably a shooting guard in just about everyone else's offense, but he gets the job done for Wisconsin at the point. He's the second best assist man on the team and, unsurprisingly, he never coughs the ball up. He shoots the ball a little more often from outside, but he's one of the best shooters on the team from just about anywhere.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Ranking: Iowa #37, Wisconsin #6
Projected Score: Iowa 62 (15%), Wisconsin 72 (85%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.02, Wisconsin 1.18
Projected Possessions: 61
That projection should surprise just about no one. Iowa is a pretty good team this year, but Wisconsin has too many ridiculously good players on their roster and this game is in Madison. If this were in Carver, like it will be in a little over a week, Wisconsin would be favored by Kenpom's computers by only 3.
So, yeah, Wisconsin will probably win this game, but Iowa does have a chance. In order to pick up the victory, though, the Hawkeyes are going to have to find a way to beat Wisconsin in some facet of the game that not many teams have been able to do this year. That means out-shooting them (yeah...), actually grabbing offensive rebounds against them (maybe), getting to the free throw line in droves (okay, sure), or finding a way to force turnovers from their steel trap hands and get some easy points in transition (eh...). I would say those middle two of the four might be possible. And if Iowa can do one or two of those things, it should hopefully be enough to at least play a competitive game on the Badgers' home floor, if not pull off the upset.
But, let's be honest, Iowa's odds of stopping this Wisconsin offense are microscopic barring some freak bad shooting night from the Badgers. More realistically, Iowa will need to do just enough on defense so that a nice offensive performance can keep pace. The odds are stacked against them, especially on the road. But Iowa has been up for every challenge away from home this season thus far, so why not again?