Iowa Hawkeyes (21-10, 12-6) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (17-15, 4-14)
Date: March 12, 2015
Time: 1:30 PM CT
Location: United Center (Chicago, IL)
Point spread: Iowa -8
This isn't a game that can do a lot to change Iowa's profile -- or rather, it's not a game that can do a lot to change Iowa's profile in a positive way. Beating Penn State and their 112 RPI would provide a small boost to Iowa's resume as they try to climb the seeding ladder in the NCAA Tournament* -- RPI Wizard suggests Iowa's RPI would go from 37 to 34 with a win -- but losing to Penn State would deal Iowa a pretty big blow (plugging in a loss to PSU has RPI Wizard moving Iowa's RPI from 37 to 46) and end any hopes of Iowa climbing above the 8/9 quagmire. And regardless of the RPI and seeding implications that a loss to Penn State would have, it would also kill a lot of the good vibes that Iowa basketball has been generating over the last three weeks. And that would be no fun at all.
* As an aside, can we mention again how great it is to be playing in the Big Ten Tournament and not worrying about whether wins in this tourney are crucial for Iowa's hopes of making the NCAA Tournament? We haven't been able to feel this secure about a potential NCAA bid for Iowa since 2006. (As it turned out, Iowa didn't need to win a game in the Big Ten Tournament last year to get into the NCAA Tournament... but it sure didn't feel that way at the time, what with Iowa entering the league tournament on a 1-5 skid and their RPI plummeting.)
As for Penn State, they should be pretty familiar to us -- Iowa played them less than two weeks ago (an 81-77 Iowa win in OT, the closest call Iowa's had in their current winning streak) and not much about the Nittany Lions has changed, other than the fact that they've won two games in a row for the first time since late January. Penn State beat Minnesota last weekend by some sharp shooting (47% from the floor, including 42% from deep) and a monstrous performance from D.J. Newbill -- 31 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. They jumped out to a big lead on Nebraska yesterday, but were forced to hang on for dear life at the end of the game, mainly because they were uncharacteristically poor at keeping Nebraska off the offensive glass. The Huskers grabbed a ridiculous 24 offensive rebounds yesterday, which allowed them to take 11 more shot attempts than Penn State and somewhat offset their miserable shooting (29% on 2FG, 36% on 3FG).
If Iowa can grab 20+ offensive rebounds against Penn State today, this game should be an easy Iowa rout. That probably won't happen, though -- Penn State is generally a pretty good team about preventing opponents from dominating the offensive glass like that. (30.3%, 135th in the country). What Penn State does well -- and what gave Iowa trouble in Happy Valley just a few weeks ago -- is defend two-point shots well and contest shots inside. In Iowa's last game with Penn State, Jordan Dickerson and Julian Moore (both 6-10 or taller) blocked a total of 5 shots and contested or altered several others. Iowa shot just 35% (16/48) on 2-point shots in that game; if it hadn't been for some big 3-point shots from Jarrod Uthoff (3/7) and Josh Oglesby (4/8) as well as some excellent free throw shooting (25/27, including six in a row from White to ice the game in OT), Iowa's win streak likely would have ended in that game. Free throws could again be the key today, since Iowa's strength (getting to the line) matches up well with Penn State's weakness (putting teams on the line). Iowa will just need to make those free throws when they get them -- and hopefully convert a few more 2-point field goals near the rim this time, too.
The star around which Penn State shootyhoops revolves is still D.J. Newbill. Newbill uses a whopping 29.9% of Penn State's possessions and he leads the team (and league) in scoring (20.8 ppg), assists (3.1 apg), and steals (1.3 spg). He's also the third-leading rebounder (4.7 rpg). Newbill is probably going to get his -- the key is just to make him work for his points (he had 19 points against Iowa last time, but it took him 19 shots to get there) and to prevent him from getting anyone else too involved. In the previous Iowa-Penn State game, Newbill was one of four PSU players in double figures -- Shep Garner had 17, Geno Thorpe had 14, and Ross Travis had 10. Garner's sharpshooting gave Penn State a big boost early in that game and he's the kind of outside threat that could go off and torment Iowa all day (which is exactly what he did against Nebraska yesterday: 19 points on 5/8 shooting from deep). But he's also a freshman and prone to freshman-like bouts of inconsistency. If Iowa can keep guys like Garner, Thorpe, and Travis from doing too much to aid Newbill in this one, Iowa should be able to win fairly comfortably.