Given the shocking loss that Iowa handed Wisconsin back on New Year's Eve (in the ghost town known as "Rose Bowl weekend" Kohl Center), it's high time we got concerned about this dandy of a rematch in Iowa City.
A win by Wisconsin (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten) accomplishes a few things. It would avenge perhaps the most embarrassing loss of the year for UW, clinch another winning conference record, and prove once again that our state is better than theirs by breaking an amazing stalemate in this border rivalry (77-77 all-time in hoops, plus 42-42-2 in football). Iowa cannot be overlooked. Beating the Badgers would put Iowa (14-13, 6-8) in great shape for the postseason, and even the NIT would be something to get excited about after all that program has been through lately.
In an effort to take the surprising Hawkeyes more seriously, I threw a ton of wordy questions at Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants. He was more than up to the challenge. You can find me over there as well. Follow along as we discuss redheads, Iowa's fiery head coach and the crippling offensive trait that these two teams have in common.
B5Q: I have a theory that Mike Bruesewitz's struggles can be attributed to the arrival of freshman Aaron White in Iowa City, due to the little-known rule that only one red-headed player at a time can have a breakout season in the Big Ten. I know Wisconsin even recruited White briefly. Tell us what he's meant to Iowa and honestly, how surprised are you?
BHGP: You're right: much like HIGHLANDER, there can be only one ginger star in the B1G. Aaron White's emergence as a legitimate B1G forward has been a godsend for Iowa. On paper, power forward appeared to be Iowa's deepest position, between Melsahn Basabe (coming off an impressive freshman season), Zach McCabe (a grinder who appeared to take a noticeable leap forward in quality from a year ago), and White. But Basabe's been mired in the proverbial sophomore slump for most of this season and McCabe's somewhat limited defensively and very prone to getting in foul trouble. Which has meant that Iowa has needed White to play at a high level to pick up the slack, which is precisely what he's done. He turned some heads with his very first game, when he put up a 19-10 in 18 minutes. We rationalized that by saying it was "just Chicago State," but he's improbably gotten better as the season has progressed. Over the last four games, he's gone for 17-9, 17-12, 16-10, and 8-10 (points-rebounds). I keep waiting for him to hit the freshman wall, but so far he hasn't even come close to fading. And I won't lie: I've been very surprised by how well he's played. Entering the season, I thought he was a good player and an underrated recruit... but I figured that meant he'd play 10-15 minutes as a spark off the bench. I didn't dream that he'd be a hugely effective Big Ten starter.
B5Q: The Big Ten is perceived to be the strongest conference this season and as such, there's talk of possibly eight teams from the league making the tournament. What's the level of W-E B-E-L-I-E-V-E surrounding Iowa at this moment concerning the Hawkeyes possibly being one of those teams?
BHGP: Pretty low, which is probably more a function of a program that's rarely missed an opportunity to stub its toe over the past five years than it is an example of Iowa humility. We're all too cognizant of the fact that we haven't had a winning season in five years. Memories of those ghastly losses to Clemson (f**k Clemson) and Campbell (fear the Fightin' Camels!) in December still linger, not to mention more recent pratfalls like a home loss to Nebraska a month ago and (oh yeah) a loss to Penn State just a week ago. Iowa's recorded a number of very nice wins this year, but following up those wins has been a big problem. In B1G play, we've won back-to-back games just once. Given that our tournament aspirations come down to putting together one hell of a winning streak to end the season, well, that's a bit of a problem. Now if we meet up again in a few weeks at the Big Ten Tournament and Iowa actually has put together a winning streak to end the season? I might have a very different answer for you then. For now we're just trying to savor the wins where we get them.
B5Q: Assess the program in year two of the Fran McCaffery era. We've already seen Fran's more than adequate ability to throw chairs, sign in-state talent and pull off a couple of nice upsets.
BHGP: Trending upward. He won fans over with his press conferences from day one, something which hasn't changed a bit. He answered a lot of recruiting questions with the class he signed for 2012 (winning a player away from Roy Williams, the Pied Piper of blue-chip Iowa recruits, earned him a lot of fans around here) and we feel even more enthused about those recruits after the success we've seen McCaffery recruits like Basabe, White, Bryce Cartwright, and Roy Devyn Marble have. The wins over top-20 teams have been incredibly exciting and uplifting moments for a program that hasn't seen many of those lately. On the other hand, the losses to bad teams and shockingly inconsistent performances (from week-to-week, game-to-game, even half-to-half) serve as reminders that this is still very much a work in progress. Entering the season, Fran was winning on every front except the hardwood. The bad losses have been maddening, but the wins over top-20 teams have been sweet and he has Iowa in position to have a winning record (and an outside chance at postseason play) late in the year -- that's real progress.
B5Q: Identifying a few of Iowa's low points is easy. There were 30+ point blowout losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, as well as surrendering 103 points to Indiana. Which game would you say was rock bottom for this team?
BHGP: Unfortunately, there's no shortage of games to choose from here. The losses to Michigan State and Ohio State were dreadful, but it's hard to get all that surly about getting worked like a speedbag by a pair of teams that could each make the Final Four (especially since the MSU game was in East Lansing, which has been a house of horrors for Iowa for decades). The Indiana game was arguably the most atrocious defensive performance of the season for Iowa, but it did feature a very efficient offensive outing, so it wasn't all bad. I think it comes down to what you think is worse: a bad loss when you don't yet have any wins that give you reason for hope or a bad loss after you've seen an impressive win or two. Personally, I'd go with the blowout loss to Campbell in December -- we had no idea if this team was any good at that point and getting blown out at home by Campbell was not an encouraging sign. The blowouts to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Northwestern and the close losses to Penn State and Nebraska were still gutting, but they felt a little easier to take after I'd actually seen them pick up a few nice wins, giving me tangible evidence that they really weren't hopeless.
B5Q: While half of the Badgers fans were in Pasadena, Iowa came into the Kohl Center and shocked Wisconsin on New Year's Eve. The Badgers shot an abysmal 3-of-28 from 3-point land in the earlier meeting, but they also struggled to contain Iowa in transition. It was the fastest conference game of the year for the Badgers, at 67 possessions. Assuming UW shoots better than 11% from downtown, how can Iowa pull off a sweep on Thursday?
BHGP: I assume Iowa won't get lucky enough to have the Badgers shoot that abysmally again (although I'd certainly like to see them turn into Brick City one more time). I think the solution is to push the tempo as much as possible; Wisconsin is the slowest-paced team in the conference -- they want to grind the game to a halt and make every possession a 12-round fight. That's not a battle Iowa should fight: Wisconsin's half-court execution (on both offense and defense) is far superior to Iowa's, which means Iowa needs to get the game into the area where they excel: the transition game. The more frantic and helter-skelter the game is, the better it will be for Iowa. Also, it wouldn't hurt if the defensive effort from the Indiana game on Sunday showed up again tonight.
B5Q: Though McCaffery's uptempo style can create problems for a team like Wisconsin, it also can attribute to a lax attitude toward defense. The Hawkeyes are allowing a league-worst 1.11 PPP in Big Ten games. The way the schedule shapes up for Iowa, it's not out of the question that they could put a nice winning streak together and run the table in the regular season. However, the team hasn't won more than three in a row all season. Is bad defense the sole culprit for Iowa's inconsistency this season?
BHGP: No, bad defense isn't the lone gunman in this particular scenario. The offense deserves its share of the blame for going AWOL a little too often. The Iowa offense was notorious for going on long, game-crippling scoring droughts under previous coach Todd Lickliter and while Fran has done a good job of erasing those, he hasn't been able to completely eradicate them. Against Nebraska and Northwestern, the offense went ice cold for long stretches; by the time it woke up, the other team had either run away with the contest (Northwestern) or clawed their way back into a game they had no business being in (Nebraska). That said, bad defense has been a far more consistent culprit in Iowa's bad performances than the offense. When the defensive effort is good, Iowa often wins. When the defensive effort is lacking, wins are nonexistent and the loses can get pretty ugly.
B5Q: Break down Thursday's specific matchups for us from an Iowa perspective. Where do you see the advantages for Iowa and Wisconsin respectively? Which player is most likely to determine the outcome of the game?
BHGP: I think the spotlight matchup is certainly Jordan Taylor versus Roy Devyn Marble at the point. Bryce Cartwright may or may not be able to play for Iowa (he's recuperating from a high ankle sprain sustained in practice last week), but even if he can play, he's not going to be anywhere near 100% -- and certainly not capable of holding his own against a point guard as good as Taylor. Marble's been a very pleasant surprise at point guard this season, though, and he's been very solid on both ends of the court for much of the season. He did a pretty nice job of frustrating Taylor when these teams played in Madison two months ago, so I'm cautiously optimistic that he'll be able to keep Taylor from blowing up against Iowa. On the other hand, Iowa figures to need a lot more than the 4/17 (!) shooting performance they got from him against Indiana on Sunday.
The other matchup that concerns me is whoever Iowa has guarding Josh Gasser (probably either Matt Gatens, who will also probably see time on Taylor, or Josh Oglesby). Sharp-shooting guards have had plenty of field days against Iowa this year and if Iowa is too preoccupied with Taylor, I could definitely see Gasser getting a lot of good looks and punishing Iowa from beyond the arc.
Finally, I'm curious to see how Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe, and Zach McCabe fare against Berggren, Bruesewitz, and Evans. Whichever trio is able to control the glass will give their team a big advantage in this game. I also want to see if the Basabe that showed up against Indiana on Sunday -- energetic and disruptive -- shows up for this game. If so, Iowa has a chance to make the Badgers pretty one-dimensional on offense.
B5Q: With the season winding down, I imagine some Iowa fans are getting a little misty-eyed thinking about Matt Gatens, especially in light of his career-high 30-point laser light show against Indiana. Considering what the program went through under Todd Lickliter, does Gatens mean more to the hardcore Hawkeye hoops fan than your average 12 ppg career scorer?
BHGP: I suspect we'll be writing a lot of odes to Matt Gatens in a week or so, but suffice to say that every Iowa fan is immensely proud of him. I think Iowa fans are as proud of him for his perseverance as they are his actual production as a Hawkeye. He was a kid who grew up dreaming of being a Hawkeye and who essentially agreed to come to Iowa when he was a high school freshman. And then he got here and had to sit through three of the worst years in the century-long history of Iowa basketball. Iowa hasn't sniffed postseason play during his tenure -- hell, they haven't even sniffed a winning record. Yet he's never publicly complained, never sought to transfer, never thrown teammates or coaches under the bus, no matter how out of their depth they were. He's just kept playing and, most impressively, getting better at every aspect of his game. Every Iowa fan I know is rooting for Iowa to make the postseason (even the NIT or CBI) this year and not just for self-serving reasons -- they all want to see Matt Gatens get a chance to play in the postseason. Lord knows he deserves that much after playing through all of the crap and misery of the past three years.
B5Q: Bonus points if you can summarize your feelings about Ben Brust with any of my pre-defined answers: A - Screw that guy; B - It couldn't have worked out any better for both parties; C - I was crapping my pants earlier this year, but I'm over it; D - Who's Ben Brust?
BHGP: Probably C. Given Iowa's sketchy outside shooting, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't like to see him on this team. It's especially galling to see him playing well for a conference rival. But I also don't begrudge him wanting to leave after the coach who recruited him was fired. It's not the end of the world that he chose to be a Badger -- but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't still a little bitter. I'm certainly rooting for him to go about 0-9 tomorrow.
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