From time to time, we enjoy getting the perspective of writers and fans from other fanbases on how their teams are doing. Ross WB from Black Heart Gold Pants was kind enough to answer some questions about the Hawkeyes before their game Penn State. You can follow Ross on Twitter and head on over to Black Heart Gold Pants for Iowa coverage, as well as to check out my interview with Ross about Penn State's season and future prospects.
1. Jarrod Uthoff seems to be getting overlooked in National Player of the Year conversations, probably because of frustrations with how he spells his name. Is that a source of frustration?
ROSS: That's nothing compared to hearing people unfamiliar with him try to pronounce his name... But seriously, I would probably be more annoyed about him not getting more Player of the Year love if Buddy Hield wasn't so good -- and so deserving -- that he's already basically locked up the award. I'm hopeful that Uthoff can instead hold off Denzel Valentine for Big Ten Player of the Year -- Iowa's 2-0 record against Michigan State and status atop the conference standings will probably help in that regard. Whatever the case, it's been an absolute joy to watch Uthoff at work this year. Iowa has had some good players in recent years (Greg Brunner, Adam Haluska, Devyn Marble, Aaron White), but it's probably been 20 years since they had a player who was so clearly one of the absolute best in the conference (Andre Woolridge). He's been so dominant this season -- and so unique, thanks to his combination of three-point prowess and shot-blocking acumen -- that it's been incredible to watch him in action. To give you an idea of how spoiled we've become, he had 24 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 blocks against Minnesota on Sunday and there was a sense among Iowa fans that he didn't actually play that well -- mainly because he went 0/7 from the floor to start the game and struggled to get his 3-point shot to fall. But even when one aspect of his game isn't clicking (like his 3-point shooting), he's able to do so many other things well (in this case, driving to the rim to score or draw fouls, rebounding, and blocking shots) that he can more than make up for it. It's nice to watch a game knowing that you have a guy like that on your team and that he can probably dig you out of most holes.
2. Peter Jok has improved dramatically from his sophomore to junior season. Is he the biggest surprise for this team?
ROSS: I think that's fair to say. The surprise has come in just how good Jok has become; Jok flashed enough potential in his first two seasons that I think most Iowa fans thought he could be a good player and a solid part of the rotation. I don't think many Iowa fans envisioned him becoming this good, though. This is closer to the Jok of his early high school career -- that Jok was a dominant scorer and a highly coveted blue chip recruit. A serious knee injury limited Jok for a while and he's just now really starting to look like he's past that injury. Jok was always a good shooter, but he's taken that to another level this year -- it's more surprising now when his shots don't fall when he rises up from behind the three-point line or off a curl -- and he's also added some impressive open court hops and an impressive ability to read the passing lanes and get easy steals and transition opportunities. If he was just a phenomenal shooter, he'd have plenty of value to this team, but the fact that he's also becoming a much more complete and well-rounded player is making him an incredibly important part of this team.
3. Iowa has lost five games this season, all to quality opponents. Is there any blueprint for keeping up with the Hawkeyes other than simply being a very good team?
ROSS: In general, the teams that have beaten Iowa this year have done so by posting really good shooting nights; Iowa is 1-5 when the opponent has a better eFG% than they do in games this year. In particular, the teams that have beat Iowa this year have really flourished in the paint and on 2-point field goals. Dayton and Notre Dame each made 57% of their 2s, Iowa State drained 63%, while Maryland made 61%, and Indiana converted 56%. Teams that can move the ball well and get good looks at the rim on a consistent basis have given Iowa's defense a lot of problems this year. Iowa's also had some real issues on the offensive glass all year; they're allowing opponents to rebound 32% of their misses, which is good (or bad) for 265th in the country. That number has ticked up to 33% in Big Ten games and they're the second-worst team in the league at keeping opponents off the offensive glass (only Rutgers is worse). Iowa's done a decent job of not letting most opponents convert those second chance looks into points, but it's a losing battle on the whole -- give teams that many extra chances and they're going to convert some of them. If Penn State is able to hit the boards with gusto, that could go a long way in keeping the game close.
4. At this point, Iowa is nearly a consensus top-5 team in the country a month away from the NCAA Tournament. What are the expectations for the team in the postseason, and what would constitute success and disappointment?
ROSS: Success begets ever-higher expectations and with this team continuing to succeed at a level no Iowa team has succeeded at in basically 30 years, it's certainly breeding some very high hopes and dreams. Coming into the season, I think a lot of fans would have been satisfied to just make the NCAA Tournament and win a game. There were a lot of question marks about how this team would replace Aaron White (first team All-Big Ten) and Gabe Olaseni (Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year). I think it's fair to say they've answered those questions very well. But expectations now? It's fair to say they're pretty damn high. You don't sweep Michigan State and Purdue or spend this much time atop the Big Ten and stay ranked in the Top 10 without getting people pretty amped up about March possibilities. I think anything less than making the Sweet 16 would be a pretty big disappointment at this point. If this team crashed out in the first weekend of the NCAA Tourney, that would be a pretty bitter end to a pretty incredible regular season. (Not that Iowa fans have any recent history with deflating postseason after magical regular seasons...) Personally, if they make the Sweet 16, I'll be pretty satisfied with this campaign -- at that point the tourney can be such a crapshoot that you never know what might happen. I would certainly love to see them make the Elite 8 or Final 4, but that can be so dependent on match-ups and who gets hot. Just make the Sweet 16 and let's see what happens next.
5. The Hawkeyes are losing a lot of talent to graduation at the end of 2016. What's the reading on the Nicholas Baer-ometer in how you guys are feeling about next year's team?
ROSS: Honestly, next year's team is basically one giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I don't think Iowa fans have any idea what to expect from next year's team because it's going to be SO different from this year's team. This team starts four seniors, three of whom have heavy contributors since their freshmen season (and the same probably would have been true of Uthoff if transfer restrictions hadn't cost him his freshman year). It's going to be very weird to see an Iowa team without Uthoff, Gesell, Woodbury, and Clemmons. Peter Jok should be back, which will be key -- his usage rate figures to soar as Iowa's main (only?) reliable scoring option, although he's also going to have to deal with being the primary focus of defenses. I think Iowa fans are curious -- and excited -- to see what next year's team will be like. Bench sparkplugs like Dom Uhl and Ahmad Wagner should see much bigger minutes next year and it will be fun to watch them develop with more minutes. Guys like Baer and two-guard Brady Ellingson should have bigger roles and it will be interesting to see what they do with them. There are also some guys who haven't even suited up for Iowa this year who figure to play key roles next year -- Iowa is redshirting Brandon Hutton and Isaiah Moss this year, two of the most intriguing talents in last year's recruiting class, and they're also bringing in a 4* big man in Tyler Cook who should see the floor immediately. It's going to be a very different Iowa team and it will be fun to get to know them and watch them develop. I don't think anyone's under any illusions that they're going to be excellent or contenders for the Big Ten -- growing pains are inevitable with a team that young and inexperienced and there will undoubtedly be more than a few moments where we're tearing our hair our or shaking our heads at things they do. At this point the hope is that Jok can keep things afloat while all the young guys find their sea legs and they can make a push to be on the NCAA Tourney bubble.
6. What is your prediction for Iowa at Penn State? (You got your revenge for the 2015 Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago. No need to beat up on us so badly this time, right?)
ROSS: I'm really not sure what to expect from this game. Iowa has had some good moments of late, but they haven't looked really, really sharp since... well, since the first half of the first Penn State game a few weeks ago. The bench has no-showed the last two games (6 combined points) and that's been a problem. The defense has looked a little off in their timing and rotations over the last few games, too, which has made it easier for opponents to score points. Throw in the fact that the game is at the Bryce Jordan Center, where Iowa often seems to struggle and where Penn State just knocked off a ranked team and, well, I'm nervous about this one. It has "uncomfortably close" written all over it. But... I also have faith in Uthoff and Jok to make enough plays (and free throws) late to grind out a win. I'll say Iowa 72, Penn State 66.