The flaming bus is staying put in Chicago today for Penn State's second-round matchup with Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes are a long and talented team that is riding a six-game winning streak into the conference tourney, and as you recall, they beat the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley a few weeks back.
To get a sense of what Iowa folks think about their squad, we decided to do something a little differently with our preview for this game. We sat down (via email) with Hawkeyes fan and great dude Ross from BHGP to discuss the Hawkeyes.
BSD: Iowa is coming into this game on a six-game winning streak. How confident are Hawkeyes fans coming into the Big Ten Tournament? Do they think this is a title-caliber squad, or do they think the wheels may come off soon?
Ross: I think everyone is pretty excited about this team because they have won six in a row and they've been playing some of their absolute best basketball of the season during that stretch. That's a pretty easy team to get excited about. Of course, that streak has also come against some of the Big Ten's weaker teams -- in terms of the standings, the best team they've beaten during that stretch was a free-falling Indiana team. But Iowa's been taking advantage of that softer schedule and absolutely hammering teams during this stretch -- even with that 4-point narrow win over Penn State factored in, Iowa's average margin of victory in this six-game winning streak is 16.8 ppg.
The other problems with winning a Big Ten Tournament title? For one thing, winning four games in four days is really hard -- fatigue could certainly be an issue if Iowa can make it to the weekend. If they do make it to the weekend -- if they get by Penn State today and Purdue tomorrow -- well, there's the little matter of Wisconsin probably waiting for them on Saturday. And Wisconsin beat the brakes off them earlier this season, so I would not be too excited about that match-up. So I think people are excited about this team, but not expecting a title out of it.
BSD: One of Iowa's wins in its latest winning streak was against Penn State in overtime at the Bryce Jordan Center. What was your biggest takeaway from that game?
Ross: My biggest takeaway was that Penn State was (and is) probably better than their league record indicates. They've had a lot of close losses this year and in that Iowa game it was easy to see why they've been so close so often -- they have some dangerous weapons. D.J. Newbill is very capable of getting hot and lighting up the scoreboard (exactly what he's done in the last two games, both Penn State wins), especially from outside. Geno Thorpe and Shep Garner seem much more inconsistent, but they're capable of being very dangerous when they're on and their shots are falling. That gives Penn State an array of weapons from outside; that's worrisome because in several of their losses this year, the game has gotten away from Iowa when the opponent gets hot from outside and starts raining in threes. Penn State is very capable of doing that. The presence of Jordan Dickerson and Julian Moore is also a little concerning; they're a bit raw (especially Moore), but their size can really muck things up for Iowa's offense.
Iowa won the first encounter with Penn State because of some timely three-point shooting (8/21, with most of the made 3s coming at key moments) and some blistering free throw shooting (25/27). Iowa shot just 35% on 2-point field goals against Penn State last time; a team like Iowa isn't going to win many games if they're not able to make more shots down low because that's such a crucial part of Iowa's gameplan. My hope is that the second time's the charm for Iowa -- Northwestern's interior defense really confounded Iowa the first time the teams played, but Iowa fared better against them in the rematch. The other key for Iowa is keeping the non-Newbill players under wraps. He's probably going to get his and that's fine, especially if it takes him a lot of shots to get those points. But Penn State had four guys in double figures in the first game against Iowa; Iowa needs to do a better job of locking down Newbill's sidekicks and preventing them from being big contributors.
BSD: What have teams done to neutralize arguably Iowa's biggest asset, its length?
Ross: On offense, Iowa's length tends to manifest itself most in the way its post players get good looks at the basket and draw fouls. Iowa gets over half of their points from 2-point field goals (52.2%) and most of those shots are coming near the hoop. Iowa doesn't shoot a lot of long 2-point jump shots. So Iowa's post players tend to use their length to either get good looks and easy buckets or draw fouls -- both of which they're good at doing. The teams that have beat Iowa this year -- or put a scare in them -- have been able to force them to shoot poorly down low and keep them off the foul line. Iowa's not a particularly good three-point shooting team (33.6%, 204th in the country), so if they have to bomb away from deep, they might be in trouble. Most teams that have given Iowa trouble in the paint this year have had big guys who could alter or block shots -- Northwestern's Alex Olah, Purdue's AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas, Penn State's Jordan Dickerson.
BSD: Iowa's best player is Aaron White. What is it that makes him so good, and is he the kind of player who can spark a big Iowa run in March?
Ross: White was better than expected on arrival at Iowa (he posted a 19-10 in his first game, which was a pretty auspicious debut, even if it did come against lowly Chicago State), but he's only gotten better over the course of his 4-year career. Quite often, White's overall production will come as a bit of a surprise -- you'll lock down and see that he has 12 points and 8 rebounds and wonder where it came from. Then you'll remember the three dunks he threw down, the transition layup, and the six fouls he drew. White doesn't have a consistent outside shot (though he's been very good from long range of late; he's shooting 8/13 from deep during Iowa's current six-game winning streak), but he has excellent timing and finishing ability in transition. He also had good anticipation in the half-court and is able to make strong cuts to the rim or be in the right position to grab an easy rebound or pick up an easy foul and go to the line. Basically, White is a garbageman on offense -- he's just a really, really good one.
As far as whether or not he's the kind of player who can spark a big run in March... I wouldn't have thought so a month ago, but his current six-game streak has showed me a lot. White seemed to step up and take a bigger role on offense in the aftermath of Iowa's back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Northwestern, helping to prevent a further tailspin (which is exactly what didn't happen a year ago with this Iowa team). He's been playing more aggressively and more purposefully -- exactly like you'd hope from a senior who doesn't want his season to end. He doesn't fit the profile of most players who carry their teams far in March -- he's not a guard who has the ball in his hands a lot, nor is he a guy who can really get his own shot off all that easily -- but the way he's played over the last three weeks makes me unwilling to doubt him too much. He may not be the most traditional star player, but he is an extremely effective one and I'll be happy to to see how far he can help carry Iowa in March.
BSD: Iowa's biggest weakness seems to be its backcourt. Penn State's biggest strength is its backcourt. How much confidence do you have in Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and co. to hang with the D.J. Newbill-led PSU backcourt?
Ross: It depends, really. Stat for stat, Gesell, Clemmons, and co. are not going to match the production of Newbill, Shep, etc. unless the Iowa boys have some of the best games of their careers. That's just a function of the construction of these teams -- this Iowa team just isn't built to get 30+ points out of the backcourt. What Gesell, Clemmons, Jok, etc. have to do is keep things close enough with their Penn State counterparts that Iowa's front-court advantage can take over and lead Iowa to victory. Iowa can't afford zeroes or no-show performances out of Gesell, Clemmons, or Jok. They need Jok to get his shooting back on track and make 2-3 three-pointers. They need Clemmons to chip in a few buckets and keep the second-unit offense chugging along. They need Gesell to make a handful of shots, find open shooters, and distribute the ball well. If Iowa's guards can score around 20 points, dish out 8-10 assists, and limit their turnovers, I like Iowa's chances in this game. Do I think they can do that? Yeah.
BSD: What are you expectations for Iowa's postseason, both in this tournament and the NCAAs?
Ross: My hope is that Iowa can win a couple games in each tournament. At minimum, I'd like them to win one game in each tournament. I don't think that's hugely unrealistic -- Iowa will be favored to beat Penn State today and they appear to be in line to get a pretty solid seed (#7, maybe #6?) in the NCAA Tournament, which should give them a first round game that they have a good chance of winning. Iowa hasn't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since (ugh) 2001, which is way too freaking long. That ignominious streak really, really needs to end. Beyond that, I think this team is very capable of winning a couple of games each in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, if they're able to play at something close to the level they've been at lately.
BSD: Prediction time! What happens when Penn State and Iowa play today?
Ross: I think Iowa opens up the game hot and opens up a lead, but Newbill leads a Penn State charge to make it close at the break. The game stays close for a good chunk of the second half, but ultimately White and Uthoff make a few too many baskets and Iowa's free throw shooting helps them ice the game. Iowa wins, 70-62.
Thanks again to Ross from our best friend and chief social rival, Black Heart Gold Pants, for the help. You can (and should) follow him on Twitter here, and make sure you follow BHGP's Twitter as well. If you'd like to check out what we had to say to BHGP about this game, click here.
Go State, beat the Hawkeyes. #WhyNotUs