Standing in the way of No. 4 Wisconsin matching the best start in school history is No. 22 Iowa, a team which has been a thorn in UW's side the last three seasons and has its best team yet under head coach Fran McCaffery.
The Badgers (14-0, 1-0 Big Ten) and Hawkeyes (12-2, 1-0) have been separated by only five points over the last five meetings, which includes three overtime sessions.
Beating Iowa in 2014 is a tall task -- literally. Iowa's starters measure 7'1, 6'9, 6'7, 6'6 and 6'1, with players standing 6'10, 6'9, 6'7 and 6'6 among those off the bench playing regular minutes. The only losses on its record are to two of the last unbeatens, in overtime to Villanova on a neutral court and to Iowa State (which remains undefeated) at Hilton Coliseum. Frank Kaminsky and company better have their big boy shorts on ...
Adding additional intrigue Sunday night is that this will be the first time former Badger Jarrod Uthoff returns to the Kohl Center in a visitor's colors. As you might imagine, I couldn't wait to ask RossWB, editor at famed digital Iowa outpost Black Heart Gold Pants, about it.
B5Q: Let's get this one out of the way: How good is Jarrod Uthoff and how important is he to the Hawkeyes this season?
Black Heart Gold Pants (Ross): Uthoff still seems to be figuring out how to play consistently and how to he handle big moments, especially in hostile environments -- which isn't surprising, since his career is really just 14 games old at this point. But he struggled a bit down the stretch against both Villanova (neutral court) and Iowa State (road). That said, he's been very good overall. He's third on the team in minutes (20.9 mpg), third on the team in scoring (10.9 ppg), and actually leading the team in rebounding (6.5 rpg). He's shooting 57% from the field (best on the team), 83% from the free throw line (best on the team), and 53% from the three-point line (second-best on the team, albeit on just 10/19 shooting). I expect more and more of the offense to run through him as he gets more comfortable with things, frankly; he's easily one of the most gifted and versatile players on Iowa's roster. He's already established himself as a key presence in Iowa's crunch-time lineup. Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White are still probably Iowa's best -- and most important -- players, but Uthoff is gaining ground on them rapidly.
B5Q: Iowa's 12-2 record is impressive. However, isn't this a similar profile to the one the Hawkeyes entered Big Ten play with last season? I was surprised Iowa didn't get an NCAA bid but Iowa's subpar road record (2-8) and lack of quality wins away from Iowa City was the likely culprit. So, back to square one. It's early, but how important is this game to Iowa's postseason resume?
BHGP: I think it matters more for the purposes of seeding than it does getting into the tournament. If they take care of business at home and avoid any bad losses (like last year's road loss to Nebrasketball), I think they'll be in solid shape to make the NCAA Tournament. But if Iowa doesn't want to be an 8 or 9 seed (or worse), then it would behoove them to pick up some more impressive wins and beating a top-5 Wisconsin team in Madison would certainly fit the bill there. Iowa wasn't able to get a signature win in non-conference play (although their wins over Xavier and Notre Dame are looking much better lately), so they'll need to get a few in Big Ten play if they want to get a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
B5Q: At halftime of the Wisconsin-Northwestern game, ESPN's Jeff Goodman appeared to include Fran McCaffery in his list of coaches on the hot seat. What would it take to really put McCaffery on the hot seat? If he somehow missed the NCAAs again, how loud would the grumbling be?
BHGP: His statement made a lot more sense in the context that of his actual column on ESPN ($), but it was an odd list for Fran to be on and an odd graphic for ESPN to use. Anyway, Fran is in no danger of losing his job this season. There's definitely an expectation that Iowa will make the NCAA Tournament this year based on the progress this team has made over the past few years and the talent and experience that they have, so people would be disappointed if Iowa again failed to make the field of 64 (er, 68). But he's done so much to rebuild a program that had been lifeless that I think he would get the benefit of the doubt if things went pear-shaped this year. It would certainly put more pressure on him to get into the NCAA Tournament next year, though.
B5Q: Lost in the shadow of Iowa's offensive prowess in McCaffery's system is the fact that the Hawkeyes hold opponents to a very low effective field goal percentage, not just this season (41.2) but last season (44.1) too. By comparison, Wisconsin is only holding teams to 45.5 eFG%. Still, we've seen Iowa give up a lot of points to good teams -- what gives?
BGHP: The defense definitely sprung a few leaks in the Iowa State, Notre Dame, and Villanova games, which was disappointing. I think the answer is that Iowa has a good defense -- but maybe one that's not quite as good as some of their gaudier statistical rankings would indicate. Against Villanova, the main issue was from deep; Nova went on a few torrid three-point shooting stretches in that game that pushed them to victory. Against Iowa State and Notre Dame, perhaps to compensate for the earlier failure, Iowa did a better job of defending the perimeter shooting, but gave up a lot more buckets inside; Notre Dame's giant ginger, Garrick Sherman, had a monster game against Iowa (29 points on 12/18 shooting). I'm very curious to see what approach McCaffery adopts for the game against Wisconsin.
B5Q: The Hawkeyes seem to be a balanced inside-outside team, shooting the outside shot much better this season. With so many key players returning from last year, which guy have you noticed who is improved the most?
BGHP: I think you can make a case for several players, including Aaron White (who seems more comfortable taking over games if necessary this year; he's also averaging a sizzling 66% from the field so far this year) and Zach McCabe (averaging 7.9 ppg, up from 5.7 ppg, and shooting 41% from deep this year, up from 32% a year ago). But I think the player who's made the biggest leap forward is Gabe Olaseni. He's the best athlete on the Iowa team but the early knock on him was that he was very raw, since he'd only started playing basketball in his mid-to-late teens (he's originally from London). He's continued to improve every year he's been at Iowa and this year he's really starting to blossom: 6.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg in just 16 minutes of work. And, honestly, he'd probably be averaging at least 8-9 ppg if his finishing was a bit better -- his touch is still a little wonky around the hoop. But he's been a wonderful sparkplug for Iowa's second unit and he brings a really great energy off the bench that's helped Iowa wear teams down this year.
B5Q: Having Roy Devyn Marble in the backcourt is just one of the reasons Iowa is taller at every position than just about any team in the nation. What's the key to attacking that size?
BGHP: Fran set out a build a team that was very long and quick and interchangeable at several spots and he certainly seems to have succeeded at doing just that. At its best, Iowa's defense makes offense a hellish experience for opposing teams as they struggle to find good shots, fail to get rebounds, and give up turnovers that lead to easy transition buckets for Iowa. But, as we noted above, some teams have certainly had success against Iowa's defense. Villanova did it with some red-hot shooting spurts from long range; they just couldn't miss for stretches of the game. Notre Dame and Iowa State did it by pounding the ball down low; Garrick Sherman and Georges Niang had big games against Iowa State and most of their points came very close to the basket.
Iowa has a lot of length, but they don't really have a lot of bulk -- Uthoff, White, and Melsahn Basabe are all long, lanky guys. Adam Woodbury is probably Iowa's best rim protector on defense and Iowa's interior defense has tended to be at its best this year when he's on the floor, but he also has a bit of a problem avoiding foul trouble. My suggestions for Wisconsin (wait -- why am I helping you guys?) would be to try to establish Kaminsky early and often and try and if Iowa starts committing more resources to the pain to slow him down, then have him kick out to Brust, Dekker, Gasser, etc. for threes. This might also be a big Nigel Hayes game; his strength down low might be an issue for Iowa.
B5Q: So many intriguing matchups in this game: Marble vs. smallish Badger guards, Uthoff vs. the crowd, Woodbury vs. Frank Kaminsky, (hopefully) Aaron White vs. Sam Dekker ... which one is most interesting to you? Which one tips the game in favor of the eventual victors?
BGHP: I think the battle of Woodbury (and Olaseni) against Kaminsky is the one that intrigues me the most. If they can keep Kaminsky in (relative) check (say, around 10-12 points and 5 rebounds), I think Iowa will have a good shot at winning the game. While the other matchups are definitely interesting (and important), the matchup that really interests me the most -- and that may play the biggest factor in who wins the game -- is on a more macro level: which team wins the tempo battle. Wisconsin wants to slow the tempo way down, while Iowa wants to speed the tempo up. There's an almost 10-possession difference between these teams on average (72.2 vs. 63.6), which is enormous. If Iowa can get the game played at a fast tempo, I really like their odds of wearing Wisconsin down and coming away with a victory. Conversely, if Wisconsin can slow things down, I think they'll be in a very good position to defend their home court.
B5Q: Following up on that last question, what's your prediction for the game Sunday?
BGHP: I felt better about the odds of an Iowa upset before they sleepwalked through the Nebraska game earlier this week. Maybe they were just shaking off the rust from their lengthy break over Christmas, but they just didn't look very sharp in that game (especially at the free throw line) and I don't see them going into the Kohl Center and beating the Badgers unless they're at their best. So I'll say Wisconsin 75, Iowa 68.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Adam Woodbury, So.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Aaron White, Jr.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G / F||Melsahn Basabe, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Roy Devyn Marble, Sr.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Mike Gesell, So.|
KenPom win probability: 74% (74-68 W) 67 possessions
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