Almost a month ago, Iowa lost to Northwestern in what seems to be a turning point in both teams' seasons. The loss to Northwestern was a low point for Iowa, as it was classified as their "first bad loss all year." Since that game, however, Iowa has rattled off five straight wins and is fresh off a throttling of Indiana in Assembly Hall. The Hawkeyes are playing their best basketball of the season on both ends of the court right now, and if they keep this up, they look poised to be a dangerous team come Big Ten and NCAA Tournament time.
In order to finish the season with six consecutive victories, the Hawkeyes are going to have to beat a Northwestern team that is also playing their best basketball of the year right now. They have currently won five of their last six games after starting the conference schedule 1-10. Of course, the Wildcats broke that horrific ten-game losing streak at the Hawkeyes' expense and then went on to win three more in a row after that. The loss to Northwestern still doesn't look good, but it looks less worse now than it did when it happened.
The turnaround in the season for Northwestern came on defense when Chris Collins decided to employ a 2-3 zone after his defense was getting absolutely shredded in man-to-man. It also hasn't hurt that Tre Demps has gone on a tear recently and Alex Olah has developed into one of the least talked about good big men in the conference. This is still not a great basketball team, but they have enough talent when everything is clicking to put a scare into their good opponents and beat their bad ones.
Iowa is looking for redemption on Saturday. Let's see what the numbers say about them getting it.
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.
On the surface of things, this side of the ball looks to be a real advantage for the Hawkeyes. Iowa comes into this game with the third best offense in the conference after we adjust for strength of schedule. Meanwhile, Northwestern is 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency this year. Even with the new 2-3 zone for the Wildcats, they have only held Penn State under a point per possession (PPP) during their current six-game improvement. But as we saw last time, there are some things that Northwestern does well that can really frustrate the Hawkeyes' game plan.
First of all, Iowa looks to have an advantage shooting the ball, correct? Well, yes and no. Northwestern's eFG% is a bit high mainly due to the number of three-pointers they've given up. I don't know what the defense was like before the zone, but Big Ten opponents are taking a three-point shot on 40% of their attempts from the field this season. Iowa's defense is almost that high, but they have been lucky when it comes to their opponents actually missing their shots. Northwestern, meanwhile, has not. At 39.3% from distance, Northwestern's foes are shooting lights out from long range.
The story changes once the ball gets inside the arc, however; Northwestern's conference opponents are shooting a meager 44.6% from two-point range. The Division I average on the season is 47.8%, so that's a pretty big difference.
Now, all of this came to fruition the last time these two teams played. The zone forced the Hawkeyes to trade their usual shots near the rim for more attempts from long range. The Hawkeyes attempted almost 39% of their field goals from outside, connecting on a third of them. The number of attempts was the third-highest total Iowa has taken against Big Ten competition this season, and way above their norm of 28.4%. The fact that they shot 33% from out there was good and all, but the real problem came down low. For the game, Iowa made just 12 of their 38 two-point attempts. 20 of those came near the rim, where Iowa is supposed to be dominant, but only 7 of those fell. Northwestern blocked 12 Iowa field goal attempts that day. It was an absolute mess.
But shooting was pretty much the only reason Iowa lost the game last time. Northwestern forced basically no turnovers and only won the free throw battle because Iowa had to foul them so much at the end of regulation and overtime. And while Iowa had a rebounding issue in the second half, their main problem rebounding all day was the fact that they couldn't connect at the basket once they had grabbed the ball off the rim.
So how does Iowa shoot the ball better this time around? Well, that's a good question. I think they need to utilize Aaron White better this time around. He had his worst game of the season in Evanston, finishing 1-12 from the field and having 6 of his shots blocked. The best way to change that this time around is to do a better job of getting someone in the middle of the zone and pulling the back line up, allowing White to run free on the baseline. Guys like Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, and Gabe Olaseni are capable of flashing to the free throw line and acting like a fulcrum in the mid-point of the defense. If Iowa's offense can suck Olah up and away from the basket that should give White free run at the rim. Even using White in the middle of the zone would pull up the defense and allow someone like Olaseni to play that baseline. Iowa did it against Ohio State, and they need to do it against Northwestern's zone.
Besides Aaron White, it should be open season for the trio of Jarrod Uthoff, Peter Jok, and Josh Oglesby from the perimeter all day. I'm not saying Iowa needs to take 39% of their shots from out there again, but there will likely be open looks and it will be important that they make them. If they are hitting them at a nice clip, that will hopefully keep the Northwestern defense from sinking too far into the lane and open things up on the inside.
Finally, let's talk fouls. The last time these two teams played, Fran did his damnedest to not get ejected from the game. Iowa drew 6 quick fouls on the Wildcats after halftime, but Northwestern was not whistled for a foul for the final 16 minutes of the half. Fran was visibly frustrated on the sideline and he was not pleased during the press conference. The lack of whistles played a role in why the Hawkeyes couldn't hit from up close. Being in Carver this time around, I think, will mean Iowa gets consistent calls throughout the entire game. Not only will that give Iowa a better free throw rate, but that should also help alleviate the shooting troubles they had from the field last time.
I'm a bit nervous after the last time these teams played, but I'm going to give Iowa the advantage at home. They have had time to watch the tape, and I think they know what to expect from this Northwestern zone.
When Northwestern has the Ball
Looking at this end of the floor, Northwestern's offense has actually been pretty good all year long. They aren't perfect, but they are tied with Purdue for the 6th best offense in the conference, after adjusting for opponent. But Iowa hasn't been bad on this end of the floor lately either. We can debate whether or not how much to discount the recent improvement due to the easier schedule, but Iowa did just hold a very good Indiana offense to less than a point per trip. With that recent improvement, Iowa is #8 in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency. And although that doesn't sound like it's very good, their adjusted defensive efficiency is now down to 0.95 PPP allowed on the season.
The success this Northwestern team has had this year has been mainly the result of above average shooting (specifically from three-point land) and a lack of turnovers. The Wildcats don't grab offensive rebounds all that well and they pretty much never get to the free throw line. And, when you remember back to the last game against these two, all of that is pretty much what we saw. Northwestern had some costly turnovers, but at 16.5% for the game, their turnover rate wasn't completely outrageous either. They were out-rebounded by the Hawkeyes, and if it wasn't for all the fouls that Iowa was forced to commit at the end of the game, Northwestern's free throw rate wouldn't have been nearly as high as it ended up being. Instead, what got Northwestern over the hump on offense, was the fact that they shot 45% from three-point range and over 50% from near the rim.
Bryant McIntosh knocked home mid-range jumpers, Tre Demps tossed in 4 treys, and a host of Northwestern guys seemed to read Iowa's defense very well and make some nice cuts to the basket for easy buckets. Iowa's defense was out of place quite a bit throughout the day, and it certainly didn't look the way it did against Indiana on Tuesday night.
Will this happen again? Per usual, I have no idea. The Hawkeyes did a pretty good job of holding Northwestern to shooting just 40% on their two-point shots for the game. And with Iowa's length on the inside, I think they can do that again. That leaves the main question being: can Iowa play better defense on the perimeter? They did so against Indiana on Tuesday, which makes me think that it is certainly possible. The Wildcats are going to put up a lot of three-point attempts; there is no real way around that. The Hawkeyes just need to make sure they are contested and not of the wide open variety that we saw last time.
I'm not confident enough to give Iowa's defense the advantage here, but I do think the numbers and the match ups don't necessarily favor Northwestern either. Therefore, I'm going with a stalemate here.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
For whatever reason, Northwestern hasn't had much luck from the right side of the court his year.
When it comes to shooting, Northwestern has been better than Iowa from long range and once they get to the free throw line. Iowa, however, gets to the free throw line a lot more than Northwestern does and have been slightly better from closer to the basket.
On defense, both teams have been above average at contesting two-point attempts this season, but Northwestern has been superior in this area. However, the Wildcats are seeing opponent threes fall at a much higher rate than Iowa.
On offense, Iowa is much more reliant on two-pointers than Northwestern. But, on defense, both teams allow their opponents to attempt a ton of threes. Again, though, Iowa has had better luck when it comes to other teams not connecting on said attempts.
Unsurprisingly, Iowa is much more dependent upon getting points from inside the arc and at the charity stripe, while Northwestern relies on the three ball a lot.
On defense, both squads are giving up quite a bit more points on three-point attempts than the average Division I team.
Opposing Players to Know
Starting at center, the 7'0" 270 lb. Alex Olah is dangerous on both sides of the ball. On offense, he's not a real great rebounder for his size, but he is very efficient when he catches and shoots in the post. He touches the ball a lot on offense and is averaging 12.5 points per game against Big Ten foes this season. Thus, he puts up quite a few shots.
On the other end of the floor, Olah is a damn fine defender at the rim. He not only blocks a lot of shots, but he alters them very well in the middle of the zone, too. And even though he's not much on the offensive glass, he's an absolute beast when it comes to pulling down defensive boards.
After Olah, we have Tre Demps, who is the most explosive player on this Northwestern team. Demps has had a reputation as a high-volume, low-efficiency chucker in the past, but that's changed a bit this year. He's still taking the most shots out of anyone on this Northwestern team this season, but he's shooting the ball better than he has previously.
The starting shooting guard for the Wildcats takes almost 45% of his shots from downtown and is connecting on just about 35% of them this year. He's leading the team in points per game against Big Ten competition this year, putting up 13.7 per game. He had 16 points and was 4-7 from long range against Iowa last month, including a couple big threes near the end of regulation. So you could say the Hawkeyes are aware of how dangerous he can be. Once you get him inside the three-point line, he tends to pull up for the mid-range jumper a little more than he does drive the ball to the rim. So hopefully Iowa can limit his effectiveness by forcing him into contested jump shots all game long.
The third main scoring threat on this Northwestern team is the freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh. The youngster went off for 18 against Iowa last time and shot well from everywhere on the court. And, with 11.6 points per game in conference play, that's kind of his thing.
He's been a little iffy from the right side of the three-point line, but he's more than made up for it from the left side this year. Overall, McIntosh is a 36% three-point shooter. He also tends to shoot from mid-range more than he attacks the rim, but, as you can see on the shot chart, he's actually pretty good at making his long twos. Considering he's a freshman, it's not all that surprising that his turnover rate is a bit high, but he does help offset that with a great assist rate. He's essentially got Mike Gesell numbers in those categories, but he's also got two fewer years of experience.
Once you move past those big three, it's hit and miss on what you're going to get from everyone else on a nightly basis. JerShon Cobb was injured the last time these teams faced each other, but should play in this one. He's a senior forward that is shooting 37% from three-point range this year and is a great defensive rebounder for a 6'5" guy. He also just scored 14 points against Michigan his last time out, so with him healthy, this offense could be more difficult to defend.
Scottie Lindsey is a very athletic small forward who played a lot last time because of the Cobb injury. He's a 36% three-point shooter and a good defensive rebounder. He's also not a bad shot-blocker and had 3 of them last time against Iowa.
Vic Law is another getting freshman significant minutes. He doesn't do a whole lot on offense, though. He's a 6'7" power forward that is making about 34% of his threes this year, but is only shooting 42% from inside the three-point line and has a bit of a turnover problem. But he is the best defensive rebounder on the team not named "Alex Olah." So he has that going for him.
Sanjay Lumpkin is a bit like a sophomore version of Vic Law. The only huge difference between he and Law is the fact that Law shoots the ball a lot more when he's on the court. Lumpkin doesn't really participate much in the offensive side of things.
And last, but certainly not least, Dave Sobolewski is a twentieth-year senior shooting guard that doesn't play very much. However, we can definitely count on him hitting one or two threes on Saturday.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Ranking: Iowa #21, Northwestern #105
Projected Score: Iowa 69 (88%), Northwestern 58 (12%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.17, Northwestern 0.98
Kenpom is calling for a comfortable Iowa win here. The potency of Iowa's offensive attack, mixed with the recent defensive upswing and the home-court advantage are enough to make the Hawkeyes double-figure favorites here.
Can Iowa run Northwestern out of the gym on Saturday? Certainly. Will they? Who knows.
The Hawkeyes were clearly the more talented team the last time they played Northwestern. Despite playing like crap and all the missed shots at the basket, Iowa still won two of the four factors and took the game to overtime on the road. They had ample opportunities to win that contest and they just didn't do it. Hopefully they come out and execute their game plan much better than they did in Evanston.
Northwestern definitely has some talent on their roster, but if Iowa doesn't look like total garbage on offense this time out, they should have no trouble winning this game. Let's hope Iowa can exact revenge tomorrow afternoon and send the seniors out right.