The homestanding Badgers welcome Iowa to the Kohl Center Tuesday night for a first place battle in the Big Ten. The No. 25 ranked Hawkeyes (13-5, 4-1 Big Ten) come to town ranked again and having won five of their last six games, including two wins over Ohio State.
Iowa lost Devyn Marble to the NBA, but return most of the same cast of characters you disliked last year. Aaron White is the leading scorer and rebounder, while former Badger Jarrod Uthoff is second in both categories. Somehow only a junior, Mike Gesell leads the Hawkeyes attack and is first on the team in assists per game.
The Badgers are entering game two of the Bronson Koenig Era coming off a destruction of Nebraska and feeling confident that their backup point guard can fill injured Traevon Jackson's shoes.
B5Q: Despite beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Iowa kind of struggled during non-conference play, finishing 9-4 and losing to both in-state rivals (Iowa State and Northern Iowa). Now they sit at 4-1 in Big Ten play and are tied for first place in the conference. Can you break down what has changed from early in the season to today?
Ross: I think the main thing that's changed for Iowa is that they've maybe figured out how to arrest the second-half swoons that had been killing them earlier in the season (and dating back to their ugly collapse down the stretch last season). I hesitate to say if they've completely solved the problem -- he said, knocking on every piece of wood within arm's reach -- but there have definitely been positive developments in the last few games. Against Minnesota a week ago, Iowa again saw a big half-time lead melt away in the face of torrid shooting from the opposition; unlike in meltdowns past, though, they were actually able to arrest the collapse before the game was over, re-tying the game and eventually winning on a Jarrod Uthoff game-winner. (Perhaps you've heard of him?)
Then, against Ohio State this past weekend, Iowa largely did away with the whole "fall to pieces" part of their second half gameplan. They led by 11 at the break and won the game by 9 points. Ohio State made runs, but Iowa was able to answer them; the lead never dipped below 4 points and there was never a point where Ohio State was just making shot after shot and Iowa looked helpless to stop them (which had been a common sight in their past meltdowns). That same script largely played out in Iowa's first win over Ohio State this season, too. Those are encouraging signs for Iowa, but at the same time, I'm far from ready to declare their second half issues solved.
The other thing that's been key for Iowa in their hot start to Big Ten play is the fact that they're getting contributions from several different sources. In the first win over the Buckeyes, Uthoff had 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists to complement Aaron White's 18 points and 9 rebounds. White and Uthoff were again good in Iowa's win over Nebraskas (23 points, 9 rebounds and 15 points, 7 rebounds, respectively), but Gabe Olaseni chipped in 18 points and 5 rebounds, too. Uthoff was an assassin (23 points on 7/10 shooting, including that aforementioned game-winner) against Minnesota, but he got much-needed help from Peter Jok (13 points on 5/8 shooting, 3/5 from deep) and Adam Woodbury (9 points, 8 rebounds) as well. Woodbury had another strong game against Ohio State this past weekend, too, putting up 13 points and 10 rebounds and playing excellent interior defense. That's two very good performances in a row for Woodbury; if he's able to produce games like that on a consistent basis, Iowa's interior strength is only going to get even more potent.
The Big Ten picture without Traevon Jackson
Friday Facts: A clear group of contenders begins to emerge, led by MSU; attempting to quantify the loss of Traevon Jackson; a notable upward trend in DI scoring continues.
B5Q: Aaron White is a legit all-conference candidate this year. His points and rebounds per game are both up and his turnovers are down. What has he done to improve his game from last season?
Ross: The biggest change for Aaron White this year is that he's been able to go back to playing the power forward position more with the departures of Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe. Basabe and McCabe (and, on occasion, Olaseni) played a lot of the minutes at the 4 last year, which shoved Aaron White out to the small forward, or 3 spot, too often. Since White has never really developed a consistent jump shot or three-point range in his four years at Iowa, spending that much time out on the perimeter was problematic -- especially when he was being guarded by other 3s, who were quick enough to keep up with him. It's a different story when White is being guarded by another 4 on the perimeter; the odds of him being able to use his quickness and get by that guy and get to the bucket are much better. White is at his best running in transition, cleaning up around the rim, and attacking the basket and drawing fouls (he has an absolutely uncanny knack of doing that, frankly). He's been put into a situation to succeed by doing those things much more often this year, which has been great for him (and Iowa).
B5Q: Amongst many of the other front court weapons that Iowa has, Benedict Arn...Jarrod Uthoff is having a nice season for the Hawkeyes (second on the team in points, rebounds and assists per game). With the loss of Devyn Marble, how huge has Uthoff's ascension been?
Ross: Benedict Uthoff has been great. Marble's departure was always going to leave a big hole for Iowa to fill and while Iowa didn't (and still doesn't) have a wing player able to replicate all of what Marble did, the best bet to replace much of his production for Iowa was always going to be Uthoff, a matchup nightmare with a tremendous skill set. The biggest change from last year to this year was just getting Uthoff to shoot more: he only attempted five shots a game last year, which was criminal for a guy who can shoot as well as he can. He's doubled that output this year (10 FGA/game), and while his shooting percentages have dropped with the increase in output (42 percent FG, down from 50 percent; 39 percent 3FG, down from 43 percent), overall the more aggressive, shoot-happy Uthoff is an excellent development for Iowa. He's a strong enough shooter (and his fundamentals are so superb) that I think his percentages will improve if he continues to shoot the ball as much as he has so far. The next step in his improvement will likely be working out how to get to the line more often -- he's only getting to the line 2.4 times per game. Maybe Aaron White can pass on his copy of The Art of Drawing Fouls when he graduates this year...
B5Q: Iowa's team has two players with three letter last names in their rotation. How much money has the Iowa athletic department saved on jersey lettering? Will it contribute positively to Fran McCaffery's recruiting budget? Changing gears, does Iowa have the advantage at the point guard position with veteran Mike Gesell at the helm and Traevon Jackson hurt?
Ross: Shocking but true: Iowa asks coaches in all sports to recruit players with short last names whenever possible, so that the savings on jersey lettering can be used to continue to pay Kirk Ferentz $texas amounts of money to go 7-5. As for its impact on Fran's recruiting budget... let's just say there are #reasons why Iowa won't be landing a signature from 5* center prospect Stephen Zimmerman this season.
As for the battle at the point guard position... well, it's certainly a much closer battle than it would have been if the Badgers had Jackson healthy and available for this game. But Bronson Koenig appears to be a very capable fill-in for Jackson and Mike Gesell's form runs hot and cold. He was solid in Iowa's win over Ohio State on Saturday (11 points on 4/8 shooting, 3 reb, 2 ast), but he's struggled to establish his presence in other games. The aspect of this matchup (and the entire backcourt matchup for this game) that concerns me the most is outside shooting, though. Gesell is shooting a miserly 30 percent from deep this season, while Koenig is shooting 35 percent. Koenig's backcourt mate, Josh Gasser, is even better, making 40 percent of his triples on the season. Iowa has had a nagging tendency to let shooters from opposing teams go on hot-shooting tears at times and I can definitely visualize Koenig or Gasser raining death from above on Iowa in this game.
B5Q: Before the season started I, and eight of my friends, predicted every game on the Badgers' schedule and this game was marked as a loss by five of us. The Badgers have won the last three versus Iowa, but Iowa won the previous three. What will Iowa try and do to combat the Kohl Center effect?
Ross: There are some Big Ten road environments where Iowa has really struggled in recent years (Breslin Center, I'm lookin' at you...), but for whatever reason the Kohl Center hasn't been one of them. Their win over Wisconsin in Madison in 2012 was one of the first signature wins of Fran's tenure at Iowa and Iowa's played the Badgers very tight up there over the last few years. Iowa's not at all intimidated by Bo, the Badgers, or the screaming cheeseheads in attendance. Considering how many players on this team have experienced what it's like to play up there (every single key player), I don't expect them to be tense or psyched out by the Badger faithful.
B5Q: Let's get down to brass tacks (I don't really know what that means), what's your prediction?
Ross: I think Jackson's absence definitely improves Iowa's odds of pulling the upset and I fully expect another close game: Iowa is playing well, the Badgers are good (#analysis!), and these teams have a history of playing tense, last-minute contests with one another. That said, I expect Kaminsky and Hayes to make a few more plays for Wisconsin down the stretch and the Badgers to prevail, 72-68.
Thanks to Ross for helping us scout the Hawkeyes and providing thoughtful #analysis. The game tips off at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN (and WatchESPN) with Mike Tirico, Dan Dakich and Sam Ponder on the call. You can check out my answer to Ross' questions right here. If you aren't already, follow Black Heart Gold Pants (@BHGP) for all your Iowa needs and puns.