Your favorite Internet interrogation series is back. Today, we have our old pal Ross (aka RossWB) from SB Nation's Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants to help give us a scouting report of sorts for tomorrow's hoops showdown against Iowa at the BJC:
1. Congrats, it's all but a formality at this point that Iowa will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. What is the collective thought of long-suffering Iowa basketbros at this point? What has been to the key to the Hawkeyes' resurgence in the B1G hoops scene?
ROSS: I think the overwhelming thought among Iowa fans is just relief, mixed with excitement and pure joy. Iowa fans love basketball... when they have a basketball product worth loving. Unfortunately, since 2006 that's rarely been the case at Iowa, which led to horrendous attrition and apathy among the fanbase (and, in turn, led to Todd Lickliter's hasty exit from the sidelines in Iowa City). But since Fran McCaffery arrived four years ago, excitement has been steadily building; his teams play much more attractive basketball (arguably the high point of Lickliter's Iowa tenure was a win over Michigan State in which Iowa scored all of 43 points; I wish I was kidding) and their aesthetic value has only improved as he's gotten more of "his" guys inn the program. More importantly, of course, they're also winning more and more every year. When he arrived, they played hard but were badly outclassed by most opponents. The next year they got better and snuck into the NIT. Last year they worked their way into NCAA bubble conversation but missed out on the NCAA Tournament due to a extraordinarily weak non-conference schedule and an inability to win big games in B1G play. This year they upped the difficulty level of their non-conference schedule, they've won a few more of those elusive big games, and their reward has been an almost season-long stay in the Top 25, which was been great fun. Iowa has a team that's fun to watch -- and genuinely good. Iowa fans couldn't ask for much more than that.
I think the keys to Iowa's resurgence in basketball have been continuity and the steady improvement of the players year by year. One of Iowa's biggest problem under Todd Lickliter was their inability to keep key players; I think their leading returning scorer transferred before the subsequent season every year he was there. That sort of talent drain is just a killer for a program, especially when you aren't bringing in blue chip, ready-made star players. That also gets to the steady improvement aspect of Iowa's resurgence; this team isn't built on Fran somehow luring a 5* mega-star to Iowa City -- it's largely built on the backs of mostly overlooked 3* players (Aaron White, Roy Devyn Marble, Melsahn Basabe) who have bought into McCaffery's approach, worked hard, and showed fairly consistent improvement. McCaffery has had a few 4* recruiting successes (Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell), but by and large this is not a team built on star power or recruiting plaudits. This is a team that's been together for a long time (virtually everyone on this team also played a year ago) and played a lot of minutes (Marble and Basabe, seniors, have started almost every game since they've been at Iowa as has White, a junior). All that experience and continuity means they know what Fran wants them to do on offense and defense and what each other's traits and tendencies are. This is a team that plays together, as a unit, very well.
2. Who are some key players that PSU fans should keep an eye on? Surely, there has to be a three-point sniper or a post player that will abuse PSU's big men and make life miserable for PSU fans on Saturday.
ROSS: A three-point sniper? Boy, that would be nice. Josh Oglesby is the closest thing Iowa has to one of those and he is making 3s at a good clip (50%), but he's not attempting all that many -- a bit under three per game. Before the Michigan game last Saturday, I would have said that if a Hawkeye player gets hot from deep, it would almost certainly be Oglesby... but then Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa's best player, 6/10 from long range on his way to 26 points. He's shooting 38% from 3-point land this season, but that figure jumps to 46% in B1G games. So, yeah, if you give him open looks outside the arc, he will take them and, if recent history is any indication, he will drain them. Marble is Iowa's overall best player, averaging 17.8 ppg in B1G games (on .430/.457/.746 shooting), along with 3.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, and 1.5 spg. As noted, he's been shooting well from deep in B1G play, but he's also Iowa's best guy at creating his own shot, he's solid at driving to the bucket and either converting or getting fouled, and he's excellent in transition. He's definitely a guy Penn State will need to keep an eye on.
Down low, Iowa has a rotating cast of bodies that have combined to put up very good production. All told, the combination of Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe, Adam Woodbury, Gabe Olaseni, Zach McCabe, and Jarrod Uthoff is scoring around 45 ppg and 29 rpg for Iowa in B1G action. White, Basabe, and Woodbury start, but the bench trio of Olaseni, McCabe, and Uthoff all play quite a few minutes as well. White is the most dangerous of the bunch; he doesn't have a great jump shot or a highly-developed post game, but he's devastating in transition and he has a knack for finding a way to get a lot of buckets around the rim. Basabe brings a ton of energy, is a quality rebounder, and has quietly developed a pretty decent jump shot, too. Woodbury's offensive game is still a work in progress and he rebounds less than you'd think for a 7-footer, but his presence in the post is invaluable for Iowa's defense. Olaseni is arguably Iowa's most improved player from a year ago; he's another guy who brings a ton of energy to the team and he very often seems to be in the right place to get a key tip-in or rebound; he can also often be found swatting shots into near-orbit on defense. McCabe is a divisive figure among Iowa fans (mainly because he's rather foul-prone and only shooting 26% from 3 in Big Ten play, despite ostensibly being a floor-stretching 4), but he does usually make 1-2 hustle plays a game. Uthoff, he of the infamous Wisconsin transfer saga, has had a much more muted presence in Big Ten play, but he's a very skilled offensive player and if he gets some confidence back, he could be a real weapon for Iowa.
3. What sort of tactical approach will the Hawkeyes take against PSU? Will they try to force PSU to play up-tempo (which is something Pat Chambers has said in the past he wants his team to play).
ROSS: Iowa plays at the fastest tempo in the Big Ten (by far) and that's not just "world's tallest midget" faint praise, either -- they're 14th in the nation in tempo (71.9 possessions per game), so if Penn State wants to play up-tempo, I suspect Iowa will be more than happy to indulge them. That seems like a dangerous approach to play with Iowa, though. Iowa has one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (5th best) and, again, they like to play up-tempo. Not many teams in the Big Ten have been happy to play that game, so if Penn State is willing to buck that trend, I think Iowa will be ecstatic. I expect Iowa to try and dominate the glass and use defensive rebounding and turnovers to initiate their transition game and I expect to see them try to get to the foul line a lot -- pretty much the same things they've tried to do all year.
4. What are Hawkeye fans' expectations with regards to the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments?
ROSS: With four losses at the 2/3 mark of the Big Ten season, it's hard to be too optimistic about Iowa's odds of winning a regular season conference title, or even grabbing a share, as satisfying as that would be (Iowa hasn't won a regular season conference title in basketball since 1979). In terms of the regular season, I think the primary goal for Iowa fans is finishing in the top four of the conference and earning a bye in the first round of the tournament. Finishing third and basically being the best non-Michigan team in the league would be a pretty satisfying result, especially given Iowa's futility over the last almost a decade.
In terms of the tournaments... the Big Ten Tournament looks like a bit of a crapshoot. It may come down to which teams manage to get hot on offense for a few games, or even just game to game. There's so much quality in this conference and so much "upset" potential for almost every team, that it's hard to make solid predictions for that tournament. That said, Iowa's depth (Fran feels fairly comfortable going 10 or 11 men deep) and Iowas' ability to play up-tempo could wear teams out in a tournament setting, which could be a boon. Personally, I'd like to see Iowa playing on Saturday at the Big Ten Tournament in the semifinals -- that would involve at least one (maybe two, if they aren't able to secure a first round bye) wins and from there, who knows. And as far as the NCAA Tournament goes... as much as just getting back there would be a great accomplishment after the horrors of the last 8 years, a one-and-done appearance for this team would be very disappointing. They have the talent and the overall experience (albeit not in the NCAA Tourney itself) to do some damage. I'd like to see them make the Sweet 16; anything beyond that would be gravy as far as I'm concerned.
5. WORD ASSOCIATION:
ROSS: Juice boxes.
ROSS: Melancholy and the infinite sadness.
ROSS: The Doctor
6. And lastly, give us your smoking-hot take on how Saturday's game will go.
ROSS: I've been nervous about this game since the beginning of Big Ten play and my apprehension has only grown with Penn State's recent winning streak. I worry about how Iowa will react to the week off since the Michigan win last Saturday and how sharp they'll be. I worry that they might overlook Penn State a bit because they're near the bottom of the league and there are some bigger conference games looming on the horizon... and I know that if Iowa does those things -- if their offense isn't crisp and their defense is sluggish and they look like their focus isn't all there -- then they could easily lose this game. We've seen so many upsets in Big Ten play already this year that the term is starting to lose its meaning. And Iowa could easily, easily fall victim to Penn State on Saturday. But... Penn State also seems to be a pretty good matchup for Iowa. They seem like they might be happy to play the way Iowa really wants to play and they seem to play to several of Iowa's strengths (PSU appears to be a terrible offensive rebounding team, a pretty poor three-point shooting team, and a team that sends opponents to the foul line often). If that happens, I like Iowa's ability to grab a road win on Saturday. Give me Iowa 81, Penn State 72.
And there you have it, thanks to Ross once again for taking time out to answer our pressing questions! For quality Iowa sports coverage, you can follow Black Heart Gold Pants on Twitter (@BHGP) as well as Ross (@RossWB). Here's to hoping for the upset of the year, tomorrow...