As you remember, Wisconsin finished 12-6 last season, a game behind Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State for the Big Ten title. The stench of two close and unexpected losses still lingers over an otherwise impressive 2011-'12 campaign. Blame
Fast forward to today, where the Badgers (13-4, 4-0 Big Ten) no doubt have payback on their minds as they prepare for a toss-up of a game Saturday in Iowa City. Wisconsin again faces a team starting a freshman point guard, giving Traevon Jackson a rare leg up in experience over his counterpart for the second straight game.
But much like Wisconsin had a week to prepare for a "must-win" against Illinois, Iowa (12-5, 1-3) has had all week to focus solely on the Badgers. This is scary. That infamous Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants sends us our guide, RossWB, for a trip inside the psyche of these Jarrod Uthoff-harboring Hawkeye fans. (You'll find my responses to his Q&A on BHGP.)
B5Q: Facing a desperate, 0-4 Iowa team would have been a scary proposition, given that Iowa has had all week to prepare for the Badgers. After straight losses, how much did getting that first Big Ten win (at Northwestern) ease the mood around Iowa City?
Black Heart Gold Pants: It was a pretty big relief. Everyone knew the opening stretch of the game was going to be difficult (Indiana, @ Michigan, Michigan State is a rough start), but going 0-4 would have been really, really bad, especially if this team wanted to keep its hopes of playing in March alive. That said, this is also a very big game for Iowa for a few reasons. One, Iowa's path to a respectable B1G record likely involves protecting its home court. It's one thing to steal a road game at Northwestern or Nebraska or Penn State, but if Iowa needs to beat Ohio State in Columbus or Minnesota in Minneapolis just to keep hope alive for a .500 record in league play, that's going to be a problem. So Iowa can ill afford to lose too many more home games. Two, after this game Iowa has back-to-back road games at Ohio State and Purdue, which will be very tough. Things ease up somewhat after that, but Iowa really doesn't want to 1-6 at that point. So the win over Northwestern definitely came as a big relief, but I think people are also pretty antsy and excited about this game, too.
B5Q: Iowa was maddeningly inconsistent last season. Sweeps of Wisconsin and Minnesota, plus a huge upset at Indiana on the positive side, but some terrible losses on the negative side. Honestly, which felt better: beating Indiana or sweeping two of your traditional border rivals? Also, what do Iowa fans consider to be their #1 hoops rivalry right now?
BHGP: I would have to say that sweeping the border rivals felt better. On a ridiculously basic level, that was four wins -- half of Iowa's B1G total last year -- versus just one win for beating Indiana. Plus, while last year's team was clearly a far better Indiana than we'd seen in several years (and this year's squad is better yet), Indiana is the one Big Ten team that Iowa was frequently able to beat, even as the program cratered under Todd Lickliter. On the other hand, wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin weren't as common -- and road wins over those two teams were rarer still. Those were some deeply satisfying wins to pick up.
As far as #1 hoops rival ... that's a tough one. I think you could ask a handful of Iowa fans that question and get a different question from all of them. Some would say Iowa State, especially if they live in central Iowa. Some would say Minnesota. Some would say Illinois, especially those of a more nostalgic bent (the Iowa-Illinois rivalry was truly great in the '80s and early '90s). Some would say Wisconsin. Some might even say Indiana (it does kind of feel like we've been joined at the hip since Iowa hired Alford). As for me, while I get a lot of pleasure out of beating Iowa State and Minnesota (especially the latter, since I live in the Twin Cities), I'd have to say Wisconsin. Much like the football series, the basketball series is ridiculously close: Iowa leads 78-77 (it's absolutely absurd that these schools have played each other in football and basketball almost 250 times and each side has won exactly half of those contests) and the games are almost always competitive and intense.
I think recent events have added some extra fuel to the fire, too. The player movement between teams (Brust to Madtown, Uthoff to Iowa City) is a big part of that -- it should really get the student sections at both schools fired up for the next few years. But I think the styles clash between the two programs is also a significant factor in the rivalry. A lot of Iowa fans associate Bo Ryan's slow-it-down style with Todd Lickliter's style, which Iowa fans despised because a) it didn't win many games and b) they thought it was boring as hell. Iowa fans also have a romantic attachment to fast-paced basketball after years of Tom Davis-coached teams zipping up and down the court and they often have a pretty visceral reaction against slower, more methodical styles. (For my part, I respect Bo Ryan's style immensely, although I don't always enjoy watching it -- although when it's clicking like it was in the second half of the Indiana game the other night it does have a certain precise beauty to it.) So, yeah, for a whole host of reasons I'd put Wisconsin as Iowa's Public Enemy #1 right now.
B5Q: What are the biggest differences between the Hawkeyes this season compared to last year? Has the defensive improved as much as the numbers indicate -- or is it too early to know for certain?
BHGP: Overall, the defense really has improved, I think. Iowa's played enough games at this point that I don't think the stats are just a mirage. But consistency is still an issue -- Virginia Tech shredded this defense in November, Wichita State gave them fits, Michigan massacred them over the last 25-30 minutes of their game, and Indiana and Iowa State both had some pretty terrifying stretches against Iowa. Still, on the whole, I'm really encouraged by the play of the defense this season. Northwestern obviously has all kinds of issues on offense, but Iowa displayed some really impressive focus and tenacity on defense in their last game; if that carries over to Saturday night, Iowa should be right in the game.
B5Q: Fran McCaffery is getting a lot of minutes from freshmen this season, but I was surprised to see the team's turnover rate is actually pretty decent. What are the freshmen contributing vs. struggling with overall? Is there a season down the road which fans are subconsciously pointing to as the reintroduction party for Iowa hoops?
BHGP: Gesell's turnover rate has stayed pretty steady between non-conference play and B1G action, but Clemmons has been turning the ball over more -- 3.0 tpg in B1G competition (versus about 1.5 per game in non-conference action). That's definitely something to watch, because he's also been our most effective point guard (a team best 4.2 apg). If he gets a little turnover-prone or foul-happy (another problem for him in B1G play), Gesell or Marble will see action at point. Gesell has had a solid all-around game (8.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.4 spg); he's also one of Iowa's best free throw shooters (76%), so if it's a close game he's one of the guys Iowa will want to have the ball (Marble, an 80% FT shooter, is the other one). Despite playing only 17 minutes a game, Woodbury is averaging 6.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg and his mere presence has been a big boost for Iowa's defense. His offensive game still needs a lot of polish (and the ability to finish stronger at the hoop) and he needs to work on a lot of the little things -- positioning, technique, timing -- but he's already one of the better bigs Iowa has had in quite a while.
I think people are still hopeful that this year's Iowa squad could make the NCAA Tournament (I think a .500 record in this year's brutal Big Ten at least gets them into the bubble conversation), but a lot of fans are really excited about what 2013-14 could bring. Iowa loses only Eric May (a 7th-8th man type) off this year's team and adds Jared Uthoff (who I believe you know a thing or three about) and Peter Jok (a one-time blue chip recruit who appears to be regaining his form after a debilitating knee injury a year ago). Throw in hoped-for improvement from Clemmons, Gesell, and Woodbury as they become sophomores and (hopefully) big senior seasons for Marble, Basabe, and Zach McCabe and this is the year that Iowa fans are pointing to as one where they could not just make the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps put together a run in the tourney too. At the very least, it should be a very good, very fun team to watch.
B5Q: With Matt Gatens gone, it seems like Iowa forgot how to shoot threes (30.5%) across the board. In the event of an Iowa upset, which guy gets hot and leads the charge? Marble? White? Other?
BHGP: If White gets going from downtown, look out -- that could be a precursor to an Iowa blowout. He hasn't shot well from downtown at all. Strong outside shooting from Marble would be a big plus, too, but the two guys I'd watch for are Mike Gesell and Josh Oglesby. They're both shooting under 30% (yikes), but they're the two most likely to be launching shots from downtown. Oglesby had a great performance against Northwestern (4/9 from 3-point range), which we're all hoping is a breakout performance for him going forward (for reference's sake, he was 2/17 in the four games before the NW game). Gesell is just 2/15 from deep in B1G play, but he has a good stroke and he's had a few good games earlier this season.
B5Q: Junior forward Melsahn Basabe has seen his playing time dwindle each year as Iowa has improved. Maybe he's just a classic tweener with no position. Do you just give up on a guy like that?
BHGP: Definitely not. Basabe is playing fewer minutes (although most Iowa fans wish he was playing more this year), but he's been effective. He seems to have really embraced his role as a sixth man; he's bringing great energy off the bench, as well as a good interior scoring punch (and some rebounding and shot-blocking). He's certainly a tweener, but I think he's carving out a useful role for himself in the team and I expect that to continue for the rest of this season.
B5Q: Do you have any good Fran outburst stories from this year? Is his wife staying out of trouble in the stands?
BHGP: Well, he hasn't slammed any chairs or broken any clipboards (that I can recall), but there's usually at least one moment a game where he calls timeout, turns bright red, and chews someone a new asshole (or three). We lovingly call those moments "Wrath of Fran." Marg has been keeping very quiet, though; I barely even recall seeing her on the TV broadcasts.
Shout out to Ross for his comprehensive responses. Check him out on Twitter @RossWB and the whole @BHGP crew at Black Heart Gold Pants.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||C||Adam Woodbury, Fr.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Aaron White, So.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F||Roy Devyn Marble, Jr.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Anthony Clemmons, Fr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Mike Gesell, Fr.|
KenPom win probability: 58% (63-61 W) 65 possessions
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