Losing sucks. I mean, it really sucks and the way it can alter a person's outlook and mood after just one game really sucks too. But it's also pretty fascinating, and if we apply that thought to a three-game losing streak, it's not all that hard to understand how people can feel like tonight's game against Michigan is a must-win game. In one way, I can definitely understand that and can sympathize with that point of view. In another way, however, with the backend of the schedule consisting of Rutgers, Northwestern, and much of the bottom portion of the conference, I can also envision a scenario in which Iowa loses this game and the next one against Maryland and still goes on to finish strong and make the tournament. That's absolutely less than ideal, of course, but I think it's possible.
However, going back to the "must-win" scenario, while I don't necessarily think we are at that stage yet, winning this game would be pretty big for the remainder of the season. There are potential slip ups ahead for Iowa, and traveling to Michigan is one of them. Ensuring that this game ends up in the win column is only a positive for the end-of-season total.
Michigan, on the other hand, could probably make a case that this game is a must-win. Their schedule to end the year is not quite as cushy as Iowa's, and Kenpom currently has them projected to win only 3 of their last 8 games. Iowa is listed as one of those games in which they are favored, and it's not because the Hawkeyes have suddenly fallen in recent weeks (they haven't, they've stayed in the mid-40's rankings-wise). Rather, it's because Michigan has been playing much better as of late.
Now, I know Michigan basketball has been a punchline at times this year. I mean, no matter how many big players you lose to professional ball, there is still no good excuse to lose to NJIT. Yet, for as bad as they may have looked during their four-game losing streak in December (where they also lost to Eastern Michigan, LOL), this Wolverine team has battled adversity just about as well as anyone could have imagined. And sitting at 6-4 in the conference currently, this squad comes into tonight's game against our beloved Hawkeyes missing their star player in Caris LeVert. And adding further turmoil to their situation, is the fact that Michigan will now play their third game in a row without another big contributor in sophomore Derrick Walton Jr, who is "out for the foreseeable future."
So, despite dealing with all of this adversity, how has this Michigan team won 3 of their last 5 games, and lost close ones in overtime to Wisconsin and Michigan State? Defense is how. And, more particularly, it has been John Beilein's decision to mix in heavy doses of a few varieties of zone with their man-to-man defense that has paid off. With an offense not anywhere as good as it has been for as long as I can remember under Beilein, Michigan has relied heavily on defense in order to stay afloat.
Essentially then, this game is a battle of strength against strength, and weakness against weakness: Iowa's successful (since Big Ten play started, anyway) offense vs. Michigan's stingy defense; And Michigan's anemic offense against Iowa's porous defense. It should be a good fight.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Wednesday (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.
So, like I said, here we have strength against strength, and it looks to be a hell of a match up. Just about everything Iowa does well, Michigan has been excellent at taking away. But if we look at conference numbers only, there may be some things for Iowa to exploit. First of all, though, lets' talk about the challenges this Michigan team poses. In conference play, Michigan has been very good when it comes to eFG% defense. They don't block a lot of shots, but their conference opponents are currently only shooting 47.5% from the field. Second of all, free throws may be hard to come by for the best team in the Big Ten at drawing fouls because the Wolverines just really don't foul all that often.
So if buckets are hard to come by and free throws are fairly non-existent, what can Iowa do?
Well, Michigan has been a little below the national average in forcing turnovers during Big Ten play, while Iowa has been pretty good at not coughing the ball up. So hopefully Iowa can avoid empty possessions via the turnover. But, possibly the biggest advantage I see for Iowa, is their size and how that may allow them to have a nice day on the offensive glass. Michigan's tallest players are 6'9" and they have been merely average in defensive rebounding since conference play started. That may also have something to do with the amount of zone defense they play, too. Either way, though, I think there is a nice chance that Iowa's big men have a good night on the offensive boards.
Overall, the Hawkeyes do have the size advantage and I am looking for them to get the ball into the paint for easy shots. Michigan's defense on two point shots has been below average this season, and that has carried consistent into conference play. Their opponents have been much worse at making threes since Big Ten play began, but that's really not Iowa's game. It would be a positive if they were making them, of course, but Iowa's game plan doesn't center on that.
If there was something that worried me, though, it would be how Iowa reacts to the defensive looks that the Wolverines will throw at them. The Hawkeyes performed well against Ohio State's zone back in December, but that was clearly not a good zone defense, considering the way Thad Matta has scrapped it. And, of course, there is the vaunted 1-3-1 zone that Beilein will employ. Iowa no doubt practices against it from time-to-time, but it's so rarely used by other teams that no coach spends a huge amount of time preparing for it. If Michigan's various zones bog down Iowa's offense and keep them from getting the ball inside, forcing them to settle for long jumpers all night, it could be a long bus ride back to Iowa City. However, if Iowa makes good cuts and displays good ball movement, they should be able to get the defense out of position and get themselves some good looks at the basket.
Which one will it be, though? That's a good question.
When Michigan has the Ball
On the other end of the court, we just broke down the matchup between the #38 Kenpom-ranked offense and the #57 ranked defense. On this end, we've got the 136th best offense in the country against the 89th best defense. And when we look at adjusted conference numbers, things don't get a whole lot better. In Big Ten play, Michigan's offense has been the 11th best offense in the conference to date, while Iowa's defense has been the 12th best defense. Considering those are out of 14 teams, those are not great rankings.
So why are both teams so bad on this side of the ball? Well, starting with Michigan, the only thing they have excelled at this year has been holding onto the ball. Otherwise, they have been a raging dumpster fire in the other three factors. This is not one of the extremely hot-shooting Michigan teams that we have become accustomed to over the years. Rather, this team is basically average when it comes to hitting their threes, and when they get inside the arc they are one of the worst teams in the nation at finishing, thanks partially to getting their shots blocked quite a bit. And when your team cannot shoot very well, you are pretty much screwed if you can't grab offensive rebounds or find a way to get to the free throw line. Michigan can't, and that's why they are bad on this end of the floor.
Iowa, meanwhile, has also been a dumpster fire on defense since Big Ten play started. Granted, they have played a tough conference schedule up front, but it still has not been pretty. Just about the only thing Iowa has done well is keep opponents off the line at a below average rate. Otherwise, the other team has shot 51.7% in Big Ten play and grabbed 36% of their offensive rebounds. If you want some context for that last number, 36% is basically the same number the Hawkeyes have grabbed on offense and that has been good enough to give them the #1 ranking in that category. Unsurprisingly, when you do that on defense, it gets you the #14 ranking. Toss in the fact that they aren't creating many turnovers, and you have a recipe for crap soufflé on defense. Again, it looks a little worse than it has been due to facing Wisconsin and Ohio State's offenses twice and Michigan State's once, but it still hasn't been a pretty display on this end of the court.
The good thing for Iowa on this side of the ball is that even though they have struggled on the defensive boards, Michigan is pathetic when it comes to giving themselves second chance looks. And while it was frustrating watching Wisconsin get to the free throw line just about when they wanted, Michigan shouldn't be able to pull off the same feat. Iowa most likely won't be creating many fast break opportunities off of turnovers, but that may not be a huge deal if they can dominate the two aforementioned factors.
Of course, I would be doing a disservice if I acted like I was totally comfortable with Iowa dominating on defense. The one thing that worries me more than anything else in this one is the three ball. Michigan may be "just average" from downtown, but being an average team that shoots about 40% of their field goal attempts from out there is still quite valuable. And, as we've discussed before, 3 > 2 and that can spell trouble for an Iowa team that relies so heavily on two point field goals. That means Michigan may not need to play the most perfect game to at least hang around. And with this game being in Ann Arbor, you can color me worried about Michigan's three point shooting.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
Like I said before, Michigan is much better from outside than they are from inside the three point line. That being said, they do seem to have some players who can shoot from the left side there.
For once Iowa doesn't play a team that flat out shoots better from the floor than they do. Michigan is superior from long range, but Iowa has been better from closer up (especially in Big Ten play). However, Michigan makes their free throws just about as well as Iowa. Of course, the Hawkeyes visit the line a lot more than the Wolverines do, so there is also that to take into account.
When we look at shooting habits, both teams could not be further apart. Iowa relies more than the normal Division I team on two point field goals, while Michigan is much, much more dependent on threes.
And when you look at defense, Michigan's opponents have tended to shoot a lot of threes this year. This may be due to the effectiveness of their zone defense at keeping opposing teams out of the lane. Iowa's defense, meanwhile, has been pretty average when it comes to the types of shots they allow.
As for scoring, due to Iowa's lack of three point attempts and shooting prowess and their penchant for drawing fouls, it's not a huge surprise they acquire so many points from the charity stripe and fewer form distance. Michigan is the exact opposite, of course, and making their percentage of points from outside even more exaggerated is the fact that they don't shoot two pointers very well.
Opposing Players to Watch
With LeVert and Walton Jr. out, this section is a bit limited. That means Zak Irvin is probably the first guy to watch, as a result. Now, Irvin is not a bad player, by any means, but he's only a sophomore and he's not the most efficient offensive player on the court. With a 47.6% eFG% and taking about 1 out of every 4 of the team's shots when he's on the floor, he's a high usage, kind of efficient player.
He shoots from anywhere on the court, but he's most dangerous as a 34.7% three point shooter.
If Iowa can keep him inside the arc, where he is only shooting 41.8% on the year, that would go a long way in limiting his offensive damage. Outside of his scoring, though, he doesn't do a whole lot else on the offensive side of the ball. He is a nice defender, however, so that's something to be aware of, as he could draw the match up with either Jarrod Uthoff or Aaron White when Michigan is man-to-man.
After Irvin, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has taken advantage of increased playing time with the injury to LeVert. In his last five games, the freshman shooting guard is averaging just about 10 points per game in 26 minutes on the court, including 18 points in 32 minutes at Michigan State last game. He's a decent three point shooter (6-18 on the year), but so far, he's shown more of a penchant to attack the rim and score from inside the arc.
He's still young, so hopefully Iowa can rattle him, but he's definitely someone who can provide life to this lifeless Michigan offense. He could be particularly dangerous on ball screens if Iowa doesn't stay in front of him.
Then there's Max Bielfeldt, a 6'7" senior playing as Michigan's main man at the center position. He may be undersized, but he is the team's best rebounder and one of their best finishers around the rim.
The only caveat is that he doesn't have a lot of minutes under his belt this season. He has played well in recent games, however.
After Biefeldt, there is Spike Albrecht, who is the best assist man on the team and a threat to shoot from deep. Aubrey Dawkins is another freshman, who has put up double-digits in a few games recently, but is still finding his way in the college game. And then there is another freshman in Ricky Doyle, who is a meh rebounder, but is very good at finishing around the rim. The only problem? He doesn't usually take a whole lot of shots.
In reality, though, after Zak Irvin, this team is a bit of a crapshoot on offense. They play very good team defense, but without LeVert and Walton Jr., it's hard to tell what they are going to get on offense on a nightly basis.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Ranking: Iowa #45, Michigan #79
Projected Score: Iowa 60 (44%), Michigan 61 (56%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.00 PPP, Michigan 1.02
Projected Possessions: 60
For the season, Michigan's average offensive possession has been 20.3 seconds long. According to Kenpom, that is the 330th in the country when you compare it to the 18.3 Division I average. Taking that into account, and then adding in that the Wolverines never turn the ball over and Iowa isn't really forcing a lot of turnovers in Big Ten play, then it isn't all that surprising that we may be in for a slow, low-scoring game. Kenpom has Iowa ranked higher than Michigan, but thanks to home court advantage, the Wolverines are favored by 1. And in my opinion, I agree with an almost 50/50 win probability for both teams here because I can see Iowa's size being a big advantage, but I can also see Michigan's zone defenses slowing down Iowa and their three point shooting getting them over the hump.
The one thing that gives me a good feeling about Iowa in this one, however, is the way they have played on the road this season. Leaving the Wisconsin game aside, the Hawkeyes have looked very comfortable on the road this year. Yes, that Purdue loss sucks, but it was a close road loss without Aaron White to a young, but talented team. If White would have been healthy, Iowa probably would have taken that game. White is healthy for this game and they are the better and more experienced team than Michigan is. I think they can do it.