We have all talked about Iowa's difficult schedule in Big Ten play thus far, but it's about to really lighten up, starting with this game against Northwestern.
Through their first 11 conference games, Nebraska is the only team Iowa has played that has not fallen inside the Kenpom top 100. And Michigan is the only team that is in any danger of falling outside of that list, as they currently sit at #96. Other than those two teams, though, Iowa has played #6 Wisconsin twice, #14 Ohio State twice, #24 Michigan State once, #38 Maryland once, #39 Minnesota twice, and #53 Purdue once. That's as tough of a Big Ten schedule as they come through 11 games. But things are about to get easier since Iowa will face three teams in a row that all fall outside of the Kenpom top 100 in Northwestern, Rutgers, and Nebraska.
Focusing on the Wildcats for this one, they come into this game against Iowa, riding a ten-game losing streak in conference play. In fact, Northwestern has not won a Big Ten game since their opener against Rutgers on December 30th, which means they do not have a win in the current calendar year. That's... bad. And it probably sucks even more because this is Chris Collins' second season as head coach and I'm sure fans were hoping to see some improvement this year.
So why is this team currently ranked worse than last year's? And why do they currently have a losing streak going that is three games longer than last season's longest? Regression, my friends. That is why.
Last year's Northwestern team played extremely great defense. Their offense was ranked 309th in the country by Kenpom, but their defense was 14th. I think we all expected some regression from last season's defensive performance, but I think Northwestern fans were hoping that their defense would still be a top 50 unit, and that their offense would improve quite a bit in Collins' second year on campus.
Unfortunately, only one of those things has happened.
The offense has been quite a bit better than last year's, but it is still a mediocre unit. Of course, mediocre is better than comically bad, so the Wildcats have that going for them this season. What they don't have going for them is the shutdown defense that kept them in so many games last year. Their defense isn't as terrible as the offense was last season, but it's closer to that level of bad than it is to last year's level of defensive excellence. And with how bad Northwestern has been in the Big Ten so far, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Iowa is favored in this game.
With all of that being said, let's look at the match ups.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Saturday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, all numbers in the charts in this post are conference-only statistics. Finally, 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.
Despite an underwhelming performance against Minnesota at home, Iowa's offense is still #2 in the conference when you adjust for strength of schedule. Again, outside of the last game, Iowa has dominated offensively by getting the ball in the paint and scoring or drawing fouls. For reference, according to my box score-mining, Iowa's percentage of field goal attempts near the rim have increased from 35.9% in non-conference play to 44.4% in Big Ten play. The increased efficiency in shot selection has caused their eFG% to spike from 45.8% in non-conference play to 52.1% in conference play, and it has also caused their free throw rate to jump from 35.7% to 44.6% over the last 11 games. And when you add in that Iowa hasn't had many turnovers (again, outside of Minnesota), and is the best offensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, it's not hard to see why this offense has been so much better since December 30th.
Northwestern really only does a few things well on the defensive side of the ball. To be fair, they have played a conference schedule almost as difficult as Iowa's to date, but even when that's adjusted for, they still have the second worst defense in the conference. Northwestern's opponents have shot 52.1% from the field against them, which you may remember that number as being good when I said that Iowa had done it on offense. Thus, you probably know that it's not a great sign when that is what your defense is allowing. And if that wasn't bad enough, they also aren't forcing any turnovers -- like at all. So if you were really frustrated by Richard Pitino's extra-aggressive defense, you can take solace in knowing that this Northwestern defense is nothing like that.
But what the Wildcats can do fairly well on this end is grab defensive rebounds and keep opposing teams off the foul line. Those are two very important categories for this Iowa offense, and if Northwestern is able to limit Iowa in both, then this could be a close game.
That being said, I think Iowa has too much talent and size on this side of the ball. Alex Olah is a legitimate player who stands 7'0" tall for Northwestern, and for as good of a defensive player as he is, Northwestern does not play a whole lot of guys with the type of size that Iowa has. With the exception of Olah, the Wildcats tend to play small, which means the 6'7" Vic Law, the 6'6" Sanjay Lumpkin, and the 6'5" Scottie Lindsey will all likely have the privilege of guarding the 6'9" duo of Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff all game long. And with Lumpkin being the only one of those guys who weighs over 200 lbs., I wouldn't be surprised if he finds himself matched up with White in the post quite a bit.
So Iowa has the height advantage, and I think Mike Gesell should be able to find his way into the paint quite a bit against this Northwestern defense as well. That should hopefully help the ball movement and clear up any confusion the Hawkeyes had on offense last game when Minnesota pressured the hell out of them and collapsed hard on anything in the paint.
I wouldn't be surprised if Northwestern threw quite a bit of 2-3 zone at Iowa, since Iowa has the height advantage and because the Hawkeyes' offense tends to live and die near the basket. This wouldn't be the first zone Iowa has seen, however, so I still like the Hawkeyes here.
When Northwestern has the Ball
Now adjusting for strength of schedule may not help the Wildcats' defense look all that much better, but it does make us look at the offense in a different light. In terms of raw, conference-only numbers, Northwestern's 0.99 points per possession (PPP) is 11th worst in Big Ten play. But, when you take into account who they have played, that number goes up to about 1.10, which is good for 8th in the conference.
Like we saw on defense, though, Chris Collins' offense is decent when it comes to two of the four factors, but then they are pretty damn terrible when it comes to the other two factors. Let's start with the mediocre.
First, Northwestern is shooting the ball pretty well in conference play, as they are making about 35% of their threes and 49% of their twos. And, second, the Wildcats have been meh when it comes to not turning the ball over.
What they are not very good at, however, is drawing fouls and pulling down offensive rebounds. Since Iowa's defense generally abstains from putting their opponent on the free throw line at an excessive rate, we can be fairly sure that Northwestern won't be visiting the charity stripe all that often in this one. However, Iowa is pretty awful when it comes to securing defensive rebounds, so the Wildcats may have the opportunity for some second chance points that aren't usually there for them.
I don't have a lot of faith in Iowa holding Northwestern under 1.0 PPP, but I do think they can do enough that Northwestern won't outscore Iowa's offense. Of course, I will throw out the usual disclaimer of how much Northwestern loves to shoot the three ball, and if they can hit enough of them, they could have a puncher's chance in this game. This offense is going to run a very slow, motion-based attack that is going to look to get open looks at threes and to get the ball inside to Alex Olah. I think Woodbury can limit Olah, but can the rest of Iowa's defense make good rotations and close out on the perimeter? That's probably the key question on this end of the court.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
Northwestern's chart looks a bit like Iowa's. I would still like to see a shot chart comparison between non-conference Iowa and Big Ten Iowa, though.
Iowa is the better shooting team inside the arc, while both teams are comparable from three point range. And even though Iowa has been above average from the line in the Big Ten, Northwestern has been quite exceptional. Of course, they also haven't been to the line very much either...
Per usual, Iowa's opponent is much more three point-oriented than the Hawkeyes are.
And when it comes to scoring, Iowa is reliant upon twos and free throws, while Northwestern is very dependent on the outside shot. So, yeah, we should all be pretty used to this by now.
Opposing Players to Know
Starting inside, Alex Olah is a 7'0" 270 lb. center who is only just a junior. Olah is skilled on both offense and defense, and has developed into one of the finer big men in the conference that no one really talks about.
On offense, he may, on the rare occasion, attempt a shot from beyond the arc, but he is really only a threat in the paint.
He's not much of an offensive rebounder for a guy his size, but he is one of the few guys that actually gets to the free throw line with some regularity.
But besides averaging 11 points per game on offense, Olah is a great defensive rebounder and a very good shot-blocker. Traditionally, a guy with the size and bulk of Olah has been someone that Gabe Olaseni has struggled with on defense (although that relationship could flip on the other end of the floor), so that may mean quite a bit of playing time for Adam Woodbury in this game.
Moving away from the inside, freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh has been a pleasant surprise for the Wildcats this season. In just his first year on campus the newbie is averaging 11.9 points per game by being a great shooter from just about everywhere on the court.
His turnover rate is a bit high, but he more than makes up for it by being the best assist man and one of the best outside shooters on the team.
After McIntosh, we have the guy who takes the most shots of anyone on this Northwestern team when he's on the court: Tre Demps. He is averaging 12 points per game this year and will shoot the ball from all over the place. He is a mediocre shooter from any type of distance, but can be very dangerous if you don't keep him out of the lane.
He's a talented offensive player, but he also has a reputation for being a bit of an inefficient chucker. If Iowa can limit him to contested jump shots, that should pretty much limit his scoring effectiveness.
After those big three, there is a bit of a drop off in production from the remaining guys. JerShon Cobb is a pretty good player, but he's currently sporting a boot and is questionable for this game. Vic Law is a versatile forward who is a hell of a defensive rebounder, but not much of an offensive player at this stage in his career. Scottie Lindsey is another freshman forward who has been a good defensive rebounder and has made 36.4% of his threes this season, but has done so in only limited minutes. Sanjay Lumpkin is an extremely efficient offensive player. The only problem is that he never tends to be a huge part of the offense. And, finally, we have Dave Sobolewski, who I feel like has been at Northwestern for a decade now. He seems to play sparingly when Demps is taking a breather, but he is shooting the ball well in short spurts this season.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Ranking: Iowa #32, Northwestern #152
Projected Score: Iowa 66 (72%), Northwestern 61 (28%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.12, Northwestern 1.03
Projected Possessions: 59
Since neither team is particularly all that turnover prone, and because neither defense has really forced any turnovers since Big Ten play began, this has the chance to be a really slow game. This Iowa team has the lowest adjusted tempo of any team that McCaffery has coached in the Kenpom era, while Northwestern always plays like this.
The Hawkeyes will look to get the ball into the paint and score down low or at the free throw line on offense. The Wildcats will try to get the ball inside to Alex Olah on a pretty regular basis, but they will also move the ball around in hopes of finding some open looks from beyond the perimeter.
Neither team's defense is particularly good this season, but Iowa's defense has been slightly better against Big Ten teams. And when we move to the other side of the ball, Iowa's offense has been way more productive and efficient than Northwestern's has. So both of those factors should carry Iowa to victory in this one.
This is the beginning of a stretch where the schedule really eases up for the Hawkeyes. If they want to secure that first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, they are going to need to leave Evanston with a win.