Sunday's game at Nebraska is the third of three straight games against Big Ten teams ranked outside of the Kenpom top 100. Because Iowa is facing the bottom of the conference currently they have played against teams facing massive losing streaks. Northwestern ended a ten game skid with an overtime win against the Hawkeyes last Sunday, while Iowa was able to extend Rutgers' losing streak to ten games with a blowout win on Thursday.
Nebraska, meanwhile, is in the middle of a losing streak, but it's not anywhere near double-digits. The Huskers have lost four straight and six of their last seven in conference play. At 13-13 and 5-9 in the conference, Nebraska is already guaranteed a worse conference record than in their surprise season last year, while they would need to win six straight games just to tie their regular season record from last year.
Similar to Rutgers, Nebraska has an offense that is almost ranked in the 300s by kenpom currently. Their one saving grace is that their defense is ranked 13th in the nation. That means when Iowa has the ball it will be a battle of both team's strengths and, when Nebraska has the ball, it will be a battle of each team's weaknesses.
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.
Once you adjust for strength of schedule, this side of the ball presents us with a struggle between the third best offense and the second best defense in the conference. And since Big Ten play has started, Iowa has been very good in all four offensive factors, while Nebraska has been good in three of the four.
Nebraska employs a pack line defensive strategy that focuses on keeping the ball out of the paint. The last time these two teams played Iowa made 85% of their shots near the rim, but only took 30% of their field goal attempts from there. Because Nebraska forced Iowa to take 70% of their field goal attempts from a longer distance, it was no surprise that Iowa's eFG% was just 44% for that game.
But while that looks like a serious win for the Huskers, Iowa did still manage 1.15 points per possession (PPP) against this shutdown Husker defense and they did still win the game. So how did they do that? Free throws.
The one chink in the defensive armor for Nebraska this season is keeping the other team off the charity stripe. Iowa is currently 4th in conference play when it comes to free throw rate, while Nebraska is dead last when it comes to defensive free throw rate. And this was a huge issue for Nebraska last time they played Iowa because the Hawkeyes had just 44 field goal attempts and 38 free throw attempts. So, yes, Nebraska forced Iowa to take just 30% of their official field goal attempts in the area near the rim, but that's not to say they were totally successful keeping them out away from there, as Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni both had a foul-drawing party when they caught the ball inside that day. Both of Iowa's star big guys combined for 28 free throw attempts that night.
I know Aaron White has been struggling recently when it comes to drawing fouls at the astronomical rate that he was earlier in the season, but I still think he and Olaseni can have success against this Nebraska team even at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Because even though both guys draw fewer fouls away from Carver, they are both still way above average on the road.
|Free Throw Rate||Big Ten Home||Big Ten Away|
So the game plan on offense should be the usual strategy of get the ball inside to the Hawkeye big guys and let them shoot high-percentage shots near the rim or draw fouls. However, Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok should also play a huge role in this game due to the style of defense that Nebraska plays. The Huskers' conference opponents this season are taking almost 41% of their field goal attempts from beyond the three point line and making them at basically the Division I average rate. Uthoff and Jok, meanwhile, are both shooting an almost identical 41.5% from long range against Big Ten teams this season. If Iowa can get the ball inside and force the Nebraska defense to collapse, Iowa's two sharpshooters could have plenty of open looks in this one.
In total, I think Iowa can have success against this Nebraska defense, but I don't think they will get the same number of whistles they got at Carver back in January. I expect a good free throw total for Iowa, but I think Iowa is going to need a better shooting performance from the floor than they got the last time they played the Huskers. I'm not giving Nebraska the upper hand here, but I am calling this a tie.
When Nebraska has the Ball
Here is where Iowa can hopefully find their advantage for this game. Even with how crappy Iowa's defense has been since Big Ten play started, Nebraska's offense is averaging only 1.01 PPP when we take into account the defenses they've played. They are not as bad as the Rutgers offense we just witnessed, but they aren't much better, either.
The only thing they are really any good at is avoiding turnovers. Keep in mind that these four factor ratings are raw and unadjusted, so, to be fair, Nebraska may be an average shooting team when you factor in the competition they've played against. However, even adjusting for competition can't help those offensive rebounding and free throw numbers.
Iowa's Achilles heel on defense this year has been the other team shooting out of their minds and the fact that Iowa seems allergic to defensive rebounds. The rebounding looks to hopefully be a non-issue against Nebraska, but the shooting should be a concern.
In the previous match up, Iowa did limit Nebraska to a 47.9% eFG% and only allowed 0.97 PPP. However, Iowa's defense had some less-than-stellar moments against Shavon Shields and, really, anyone not named "Terran Petteway." Fran went with the obvious choice and played a lot of zone against a Nebraska team that is absolutely awful from distance, but Iowa's zone broke down a number of times and Nebraska got plenty of clean looks near the basket. I imagine that Iowa will play a lot of zone again this time around, so let's hope it looks much better than it did that night.
Now, here's your friendly reminder of why Nebraska's offense is so bad: they only have two good players. Terran Petteway has the 12th highest usage rate in the nation, according to Kenpom, which means he is always involved in Nebraska's offensive possessions. Shavon Shields isn't far behind and, if you were to put him on Iowa's roster, he would lead the team in the number of possessions he "uses." Nebraska has an assist on only 47.8% of their made field goals in Big Ten play, which is 11th in the conference and far below the Division I average of 53.4%. I don't have statistics to back up this claim, but I would say about 90% of their offense is running these two off of ball screens and letting them create. And this claim goes especially for Petteway. If you keep these guys out of the lane, Nebraska's offense will crumble.
I have a hard time giving Iowa's defense the advantage in any match up anymore, but I think they can do just enough to allow their offense to outscore Nebraska's.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
This shot chart should explain why Iowa will most likely play a lot of zone against this Nebraska team.
Iowa has shot better from the field, while both teams are pretty much equal at the line. However, the Huskers are actually an two point shooting team, so, again, don't be surprised to see Iowa play a lot of zone and force Nebraska to shoot from long range.
Looking at the types of shots each team takes, Iowa has heavily favored the two point shot against Big Ten foes. Nebraska, on the other hand, slightly favors the three ball a bit more than average, despite the fact that they have shot the ball so horribly from out there.
On defense, both teams give up a lot of three point attempts. If both teams shoot their conference averages in this one, that's a positive for Iowa.
Looking at scoring, Iowa is unsurprisingly reliant upon twos and getting to the free throw line. And Nebraska really gets the bulk of their points from two point range due to the fact that they can't shoot threes and they rarely get to the foul line.
And for defense, opponents of both teams have gotten an above average amount of their points from long range. And, specifically for Nebraska, their opponents have gotten an above average amount of their points from the charity stripe.
Opposing Players to Know
Let's just cut to the chase, you really only need to know the frequently above mentioned Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields.
Petteway is a long shooting guard who will often play point guard in this offense. He mostly lives and dies with how well teams defend him off of ball screens. The key to limiting him on offense is to stay in front of him at all costs and keep him from getting to the rim. With a 48.7% eFG% on the year, he's an inefficient scorer that takes a crap-ton of shots.
He's got some hot spots from beyond the arc, but he's not a lights out shooter from any type of distance. If Iowa can force him to shoot contested jumpers or pass the ball to his less-talented teammates all night, they should succeed on this side of the ball.
As for Shields, he was the guy that Iowa didn't have an answer for last time. He scored 25 on 23 scoring attempts against Iowa back in January. He frequently penetrated Iowa's zone defense and scored at the rim, but he also knocked down the majority of his mid-range jumpers in that game too. And, really, he's done both of those things really well all year long.
Shields' only real weakness is making threes. But he thrives inside the arc, so Iowa is going to need to keep him out of the paint and get a hand in his face when he does pull up for one of his patented mid-range shots. Hopefully Iowa's zone looks better than it did in the previous match up. That would go a long way in limiting Shields' production.
Petteway and Shields have combined to average 27 of Nebraska's almost 58 points per game in Big Ten play this season. If Iowa can shut one or both of these guys down, the next leading scorer for Nebraska is Walter Pitchford, who is averaging 7.4 points per game against Big Ten teams this seasons. Pitchford is a big guy who really loves to shoot from the deep part of the court. He made 41% of his attempts last season, but he's only making 31% of them this season. And when it comes to playing defense, he's a decent rebounder, but that's it.
But, really, this offense is Petteway, Shields, and a whole lot question marks. Look for Iowa to go zone in order to keep Petteway and Shields from getting to the basket all night long. If Iowa can do that, the Huskers should hopefully have a difficult time beating Iowa from outside.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #32, Nebraska #110
Projected Score: Iowa 61 (60%), Nebraska 59 (40%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.98, Nebraska 0.95
Projected Possessions: 59
Nebraska under Tim Miles is a traditionally slow-tempo team, and with the way Iowa's approaching pace this season, it seems like this could be a very slow game. Kenpom likes Nebraska's defense to give Iowa's offense issues away from Carver, but his numbers also think this Husker offense is so bad that they won't average a point per possession against this Iowa defense in Lincoln.
Personally, I do like Iowa in this match up. But I do think this will be a close game. Nebraska put up a fight in Iowa City a little over a month ago, and it took an Iowa rally to make the final score appear not all that close. I'm not so sure Iowa can make that type of run away from home against this stingy Nebraska defense.
That being said, I do think Iowa has some clear advantages in this game. They have the size advantage in the post, and if that doesn't translate into points in the paint, it should hopefully translate into trips to the free throw line. Additionally, Nebraska gives up a ton of three point attempts, so Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok should have the opportunity to fill their stat lines in this one. And, on defense, Nebraska's offense is so reliant upon two guys for offense and lacks any real three point threats, that I think Iowa should be able to play zone defense with pretty good results.
I guess what I'm thinking is that if Iowa can score 60 or more, they have this game in the bag. But, if Nebraska can keep the game in the 50s or below, it will be a nail-biter that could easily favor the Cornhuskers.