I remember a few weeks ago, after the loss at Northwestern, when a popular talking point about the Hawkeyes was the fact that they had lost five out of their last seven games. Of course, that was ignoring the fact that two of those games were to the best team in the conference in Wisconsin and another came at Purdue, with Iowa's best player injured. Specifics didn't matter, though, because Iowa was still 2-5 in their last five games.
Well, guess what? Iowa is now 5-2 over their last seven games and things are looking up again. That has a lot to do with the level of competition they are currently playing. But, hey, good teams beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and Iowa is basically doing that. Even what we all thought was their first bad loss at Northwestern, looks a lot less awful now that the Wildcats are riding a four-game winning streak of their own.
That means Iowa is sitting at 18-10 overall and 9-6 in the conference, and with three winnable games left on the schedule, they pretty much control their own destiny. Hopefully, rather than falling apart like last season, this will be a team that gels down the stretch, similar to two years ago when Iowa made their NIT run. My only request: let's hope for an NCAA run this year.
Now Penn State is quite the opposite of Iowa. Instead, they are like just about everybody Iowa has faced recently, as they come into their game with the Hawkeyes riding a pretty big losing streak. Northwestern was suffering from a ten-game losing streak, Rutgers nine, Nebraska five, and now Penn State currently sits at four.
This Nittany Lion team is not very good, but they do have a pretty good defense. Their offense is basically D.J. Newbill and that's really it. For a reasonable comparison, think Nebraska. When you adjust for competition, Penn State's defensive efficiency is right about at the same level as the Cornhuskers, whose offense also relied heavily on one main guy. Iowa has shown they can beat these types of teams, and that they can do it on the road. Let's hope they can continue that trend in this one.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Thursday (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.
This side of the ball presents the strong points for both teams. Iowa's offense is currently the third best in the Big Ten, while Penn State's defense is fifth. This is a battle of an offensive unit that is averaging 1.23 opponent-adjusted points per possession (PPP) against a defensive unit that is allowing just 0.92. But as I said earlier Nebraska's defense is rated right around Penn State's defense and Iowa had success against them both times they played them this season.
Iowa seems to have at least a slight advantage in every category. Defensive rebounding seems to be the main strength of this Penn State team, and that could play a big part in a chance at an upset if Iowa isn't making their shots. However, two things seem to be going Iowa's way on this end of the floor.
First, the Hawkeyes have a big advantage in their size down low. Penn State will regularly put out a lineup in which the guy playing the power forward position is only 6'6" or 6'7". That should be a positive for Aaron White. And that height disadvantage for the Nittany Lions extends to the perimeter, where the 6'9" Jarrod Uthoff will be able to shoot over the top of 6'6" Brandon Taylor or 6'3" Geno Thorpe.
Second, Penn State is not keeping Big Ten opponents off of the free throw line this season. Iowa is a team that will gladly feed the post and let you hack the living hell out of their big men in order to get points from the line. Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni, and Adam Woodbury are all above average foul-initiaters and the three guys on the Penn State roster that are 6'9" and taller are all being called for at least 5 fouls per 40 minutes this season. Penn State currently sits 8 percentage points below the Division I average on the defensive end of that category, so a strategy of attacking the rim, trying to get high percentage shots and draw fouls, or kicking the ball out to shooters on the perimeter should work pretty well against this undersized, foul-prone Penn State team.
When Penn State has the Ball
Here is each team's weakness. Penn State's offense currently sits at #12 in the conference, just ahead of Nebraska and Rutgers. Iowa's defense, on the other hand, is tied with Michigan at #10.
Really, the only thing this Penn State offense is decent at is not giving the ball away. They don't grab offensive rebounds or earn trips to the free throw line, and D.J. Newbill is the only guy who plays regularly that shoots the ball extremely well.They have no inside game, as Ross Travis is undersized and doesn't shoot very well and Kenpom labels Jordan Dickerson as "nearly invisible" on offense because of the lack of possessions he uses. This Penn State team is a bit like Illinois, in that they rely heavily on guard play, and they have a tall forward in Brandon Taylor (who is not nearly as talented as Malcolm Hill) that can play the three or four spot. The big difference between them and Illinois is the fact that they don't shoot from outside all that well. Newbill is a 35% shooter and Geno Thorpe is too, but Penn State is just making 32% of their long ones against Big Ten competition.
While Penn State could have a hot night shooting the ball, I still like the Hawkeyes on this end. Now that Iowa isn't playing the best offenses in the Big Ten on a nightly basis, their defense has looked better in recent weeks. The Hawkeyes have held their last three opponents and four of their last six to less than 1.00 PPP. Before that, Iowa had only done that to Nebraska in their first nine games in conference play. Again, this has a lot to do with the fact that the schedule has lightened quite a bit, but it also seems indicative that this defense is not a total catastrophe like last year's, and is probably more solidly middle-of-the-pack. Given the fact that Iowa has done well against bad offenses that rely heavily on one guy, I'm going with them here.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
For whatever reason, the size and color-coded indicator that is usually at the bottom of these charts has been cut off on the Shot Analytics website. So just remember that a bigger hexagon means a team shoots from that area a lot, and the more red the hexagon is means the team shoots the ball well from that spot.
In Big Ten play, Iowa's offense has shot the ball better than Penn State and their defense has contested shots better, too.
Iowa's offensive strategy is to get the ball in the paint to their big guys, hence the preference for two point shots. Penn State, meanwhile, is slightly more in favor of shooting threes, which makes sense because their strength seems to lie in their guard play.
On defense, Iowa has allowed a lot of three point attempts this year, so that could be bad if Newbill and company are hitting them at a nice clip. Penn State, meanwhile, has an almost average shot distribution.
Unsurprisingly, Iowa scores most of their points on two point shots and free throws. Penn State, on the other hand, never gets to the line, and so relies on scoring from the field.
Opposing Players to Know
Can I just say D.J. Newbill and be done? No? Okay. Well, let's at least start with him.
Newbill is a 6'4" shooting guard that will also play point guard a decent chunk of the time. He is Penn State's best player and they squeeze every ounce of value out of him they can. He is averaging 20 points and 36 minutes per game in Big Ten play and he not only uses the most offensive possessions on the team, but he also takes the most shots when he's on the court.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, either. Newbill is a 51% shooter from inside the arc and 35% from beyond it.
The guy is going to get his points no matter what. The best thing Iowa can do is to try and make sure that he takes a lot more shots than normal to put up his usual 20 points per game. He's got the highest assist rate on the team, so he will pass the ball a bit. But his forte is being a high volume, high efficiency shooter, so If Iowa can find a way to make him give the ball up, it would go a long way in curbing any talk of an upset.
After Newbill, there is Brandon Taylor who averages 8 points per game, but takes a crap-ton of shots to do so. He takes the second most shot attempts of anybody when he's on the court, but he's only sporting a 45% eFG% on the season and he's not a good free throw shooter when he gets there, either.
Besides being a high volume, low efficiency scorer, Taylor is a very good defensive rebounder and shot-blocker. At 6'6" he's versatile enough to play the three or the four position, but considering the height disparity between the two teams, I envision him chasing Jarrod Uthoff around all night.
The next guys to know are both guards who also average 8 points per game against Big Ten competition: Geno Thorpe and Shep Garner.
Thorpe is a sophomore shooting guard that usually plays small forward when Newbill is at the two spot. He's a 35% shooter from downtown, but he much prefers to the attack the rim, where he is a below average finisher.
Although he may not be the most efficient scorer at the rim, his attacking ways do allow him to earn his way to the free throw line a good amount. But Pat Chambers is going to have some interesting personnel decisions to make in this game. Will he attempt to play small and keep Geno Thorpe at the three spot? Or will he attempt to go big, which means putting Brandon Taylor at the small forward position and making the decision to either sit Thorpe for periods of time or bump him to the two and have Newbill play point guard. I would imagine the latter, since Thorpe has the second best offensive rating on this team.
Accordingly, having Newbill play point guard would mean less playing time for the freshman point guard, Shep Garner. Although he doesn't do anything remarkably well yet, the first year player has proven to be a pretty good scorer. He's a 33% shooter from long range, and he takes a little over half of his shots from out there. Giving him less playing time in this one, means one less three point shooter on the court for the Nittany Lions.
If Penn State does go with the bigger lineup, that means Ross Travis would likely be tasked with guarding Aaron White for the majority of the night. Ross is an undersized guy that Penn State recruited out of Minnesota, who has never developed into much of an offensive threat. Rather, his big skill is rebounding and that is about it. But he is a very good rebounder.
Finally, at the center position, Jordan Dickerson is the "nearly invisible" guy on offense. At 7'1" he has a big body, which allows him to be an okay defensive rebounder and a great shot-blocker. His main issues are fouling and turning the ball over, though.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #27, Penn State #104
Projected Score: Iowa 66 (64%), Penn State 63 (36%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.03, Penn State 0.98
Projected Possessions: 64
A mixture of being on the road and playing against a good Penn State defense is the reason this game is projected to be a one-possession contest. I'm not saying I absolutely disagree with Kenpom, because I could certainly see Iowa losing if their offense looks like it did against Northwestern and D.J. Newbill absolutely goes off. It's not out of the question, certainly.
That being said, Iowa has done well with these types of teams this year and I think that continues on here. The Hawkeyes have the size advantage and they just have too many scoring options for Penn State to completely shut down. It may be a close one, but Iowa should be able to nab their fourth consecutive win on Saturday night.