Wisconsin only gets one shot at a superb Iowa team this year and it comes on the road Wednesday night. The Hawkeye faithful will drench Carver-Hawkeye Arena in yellow and black to cheer on a team has finally arrived in year six of the Fran McCaffery era.
As hostile as the locale will be, the opposition on the court is more imposing. The No. 8 Hawkeyes (20-6, 11-3 Big Ten) are trying to keep pace with Indiana atop the league, led by a familiar face in Jarrod Uthoff, who has blossomed into an all-around force as a senior.
Yet this game is a chance for Wisconsin (17-10, 9-5) to add another signature win and get one step closer to sealing an NCAA tournament bid. With each name they add to their list of victims, the Badgers put more and more distance between the present and those ugly early losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee.
Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants was kind enough to answer a few questions about this year's Iowa team.
B5Q: Iowa is 13-0 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena but only 7-6 away from home. Luckily, the Hawkeyes get Wisconsin and Indiana in Iowa City as part of a challenging closing stretch. How confident are you Iowa can close out a Big Ten title run with looming road games against middle-of-the-pack Ohio State and Michigan teams?
Black Heart Gold Pants (Ross): Not as confident as I was about 10 days ago, before Iowa labored to win against Minnesota at home and lost on the road at Penn State. That Iowa team did not look good and that's not a team that I would have much confidence in for the stretch run. But that team also hasn't been the norm for Iowa this year, either. So the question is really how well Iowa is able to bounce back after those performances and regain a measure of form closer to the way they played in January when they were the clear Big Ten frontrunner and they were sweeping teams aside with ease. I think the key will be what their defense looks like over these last four games: in recent weeks, there's been a notable drop-off on that end of the floor, with Iowa looking tired and being a step slow on rotations and struggling to box out consistently and keep opponents off the offensive glass. My hope is that this bye week has recharged them and we'll see defensive efforts more in line with the way they were playing a few weeks and months ago. I think Iowa needs to go 3-1 in this stretch tl lock up at least a share of the Big Ten title and clearly one of those wins needs to be against Indiana next week. If they can protect their home court against Indiana and split the road games at Ohio State and Michigan, I think they'll be adding a banner to the Carver-Hawkeye Arena rafters -- and I'm cautiously optimistic that they'll be able to do just that.
B5Q: Did Iowa bring in a hand-eye coordination guru this offseason? How has Adam Woodbury managed to avoid maiming anyone this year?
BHGP: He's been saving it all up for this game. Wisconsin players might all want to don goggles for this game just to be safe.
B5Q: Frankly, I don't think this Iowa team would be very special at all without Jarrod Uthoff. Not only is he really good, but his versatility fits so well with everything the Hawkeyes need him to be, adding experienced size, defense and tremendous outside shooting. Is Uthoff now the player Hawkeye fans were expecting all along? In what area has he made the biggest leap this season?
BHGP: "Not very special at all" might be a little harsh because we've seen key improvements by Iowa's other three seniors this year (Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons) and an enormous leap forward from Peter Jok, but there's no doubt that the presence of Uthoff is what has put them over the top and turned them into one of the top teams in the Big Ten (and the country). I think this is definitely the Uthoff that Iowa fans have been hoping to see for the last few years -- we saw glimpses of it, but it's been on full display for pretty much this entire season. The consistent excellence is what has really elevated his game; for the most part, he's no longer fading in and out of games and struggling to make an impact at times. He's regularly making big impacts on offense and defense. I think the biggest improvement he's made has been improving his shooting while his usage stats have gone up. He's using more possessions (26.2% versus 20.7%) and taking more of Iowa's shots (30.9% versus 25.3%), yet his offensive rating (117.7 versus 113.8), effective field goal percentage (52.7% versus 50.4%), true shooting percentage (56.9% versus 52.9%), 2FG% (.478 versus .468), and 3FG% (.416 versus .372) have all gone up from a year ago. In Big Ten play we've also seen him become more willing to change up his approach if something's not working; he's been struggling from long range lately, but he's still been scoring 18-24 ppg because he's committed to attacking the bucket and drawing fouls.
B5Q: Make a case for anyone other than Fran McCaffery as Big Ten Coach of the Year.
BHGP: I think the only two other coaches that you can make a case for are Tom Crean and Greg Gard. Crean has Indiana atop the Big Ten standings and he's done it with James Blackmon missing a good chunk of the season with an injury -- that's pretty impressive. On the other hand, Indiana was a popular pick to contend for the Big Ten title, so there was certainly a perception that they had the horses to contend this year and were expected to do so; they get bonus points for continuing to do so in Blackmon's absence, but the weakness of their schedule (13th toughest in the Big Ten) and the fact that they're still basically just fulfilling expectations hurts his case. Gard has done a very impressive job of turning things around in Madison after a pretty disastrous start. They were (understandably) left for dead after losing five non-conference games and starting Big Ten play at 1-4. But now they're back in the NCAA Tournament conversation and they even have an outside shot to continue their incredible streak of finishing in the Top 4 in the final Big Ten standings. If he's able to pull that off this year, I think you'd certainly have to give him some consideration. (That said, my vote is 100% for McCaffery.)
B5Q: Iowa's starting backcourt is non-traditional in that neither Mike Gesell nor Anthony Clemmons are among the team's top outside shooters, but they seem to be decent fits for the pressure defense and fast-paced offense. Fran has been rolling with Gesell at point guard since day one, so he must like him. Is Gesell the ideal floor leader for McCaffery's style?
BHGP: I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that he's ideal -- I think Fran would prefer a point guard who can finish better around the rim (Gesell is shooting 42% on 2-point field goals this year and a good deal of those have been at the basket) and one who is a little quicker and able to get his own shot off more consistently (especially at the end of games), but Gesell's game has evolved over the course of his career at Iowa to get good at a lot of the things that Fran wants him to do. He's doing a good job of initiating the offense for Iowa, keeping the ball moving, and finding open guys. His role isn't to score much, but he's doing everything else very well, which has been key for Iowa's success this year.
B5Q: While the Hawkeye big men do most of the damage from long distance, Peter Jok has become a go-to player during Big Ten play and a great story to boot. I imagine Nigel Hayes will see plenty of time guarding Jok -- who do you give the edge to in that matchup?
BHGP: I think that will be a very interesting match-up. Jok has struggled at times against bigger, more physical defenders, so if Hayes is able to stick with him through all of the screens that Iowa likes to run to free up Jok, I could see him causing Jok some problems. Likewise, if the officiating allows for things to get physical, that could be a significant edge for Hayes and Wiscosnin because teams that have been able to consistently bump and jostle Jok as he's going around screens have been able to get him off his game a bit. That said, Jok has also been scorching hot in Big Ten play and especially lately (20.4 ppg, 15/33 from 3-point range over his last five games) that I'd be lying if I said that I didn't think he was going to get his in this game. The key for Wisconsin is probably how hard he has to work to get those points.
B5Q: In years past, Fran has commonly played nine guys at least 30 percent of the team's minutes. Iowa effectively goes about seven players deep this year, which I think plays to their advantage in terms of continuity. Can Iowa keep this up after the four seniors graduate?
BHGP: I think seven guys is a little bit too short a rotation for Iowa, especially with the tempo that they want to play at -- that's been partly responsible for some of Iowa's struggles in recent weeks, I think, with the starters being a bit worn down due to the heavy minutes that they have to play. It's been a shorter rotation out of necessity this year because there's been such a drop-off from the starters to the bench, most of whom are very young and inexperienced. Iowa simply struggles too much (especially in Big Ten play) when the starters are off the floor for too long. But ideally I think Fran prefers an 8- or 9-man rotation and I'd expect to see Iowa veer back that way in the future, probably as soon as next year's team, which should look very different without this year's four senior starters (Uthoff, Woodbury, Gesell, and Clemmons). I would expect to see Fran rotate heavily next year, unless a few guys really stand out and prove impossible to take off the court.
I'm looking forward to another great border battle with Iowa, so thanks to Ross for being a good sport. Check out the fantastic twitter avatar Ross is using @RossWB, or if you dare, subject yourself a miserable overload of Iowa content and hijinx @BHGP.
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