9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Wisconsin -7.5
A pivotal Big Ten battle takes center-stage tonight as the twenty-fifth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes travel to the Kohl Center to face off against the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin (16-2,4-1 in Big Ten) looks to extend a three-game winning streak over Iowa, but that could be a difficult proposition given the recent bumps and bruises that they have sustained over the past few weeks. No sooner than All-American Center Frank Kaminsky returned from a concussion suffered during their 67-62 loss at Rutgers on January 11th, Senior Guard Traevon Jackson was lost indefinitely after undergoing foot surgery after the events of that same contest. So whatever is a coach to do after losing not only two of his top four scorers, but also a pair of Senior leaders, you ask? Well, just plug away we suppose… With Jackson out for the foreseeable future, Ryan turned to the likes of Bronson Koenig to run Point, and the Sophomore responded in kind with eleven points on 4-of-5 shooting (80.0%), including 3-of-4 from downtown (75.0%), along with four rebounds and an assist as the hosts dismantled overmatched Nebraska in a 70-55 thrashing in Madison. The Badgers netted a stellar 48.8% of their attempts from the field, including 11-of-21 from beyond the arc (52.4%), where they outscored the Huskers by a whopping points in that regard. The return of a healthy Kaminsky made quite a difference as well, with the seven-footer scoring a team-high twenty-two points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field (63.6%), including 4-of-5 from three (80.0%), while pulling down five rebounds, dishing out two assists, and blocking a pair of shots. Defensively, the hosts benefited greatly form having the big man back under the rim, as they relegated the visitors to just 42.0% shooting from the field, including a miserable 5-of-17 from long-range, and permitting a scant nine assists. However, Ryan and Co. can expect a much tighter affair tonight, for despite earning victory in each of their three previous meetings with the Hawkeyes, the games were extremely close, decided by an average of 4.3 points per game.
In fact, both of last year’s clashes between these conference foes played out exactly as advertised; Wisconsin overcame an eleven-point halftime deficit to outscore Iowa 51-36 in the second half as the Badgers escaped with a 75-71 victory at the Kohl Center on January 5th, followed by a 79-74 triumph on the road, withstanding a furious Iowa rally in the second half on February 22nd. The first meeting was an ugly affair as both teams shot well below 40.0% from the field. With that said, Ryan’s charges proved to be the least-ugly of the two, winning the affair on the strength of owning significant advantages from beyond the arc and from the charity stripe; the hosts outscored then opposition by eighteen points from three and another eight points from the free-throw line despite making good on only 37.7% of their attempts overall. However, the second meeting proved to be of a different flavor altogether though the outcome was virtually identical; on the road, the Badgers netted 47.6% of their attempts form the field to the Hawkeye’s 48.4%, but again won the game from distance (plus-twelve points) and from the line (plus-three points). Though he was largely inept in the first contest, Kaminsky made his presence felt in Round Two, leading the way with twenty-one points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%), along with seven rebounds, a pair of assists, a steal, and a block. Koenig also played a vital role off the bench, scoring twelve points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field (71.4%), including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc (50.0%), with two assists in twenty-three minutes of action. Efficiency has always been this team’s bailiwick under Ryan, and this current crop of Badgers is no different than their predecessors; Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in points scored (72.8), field goal percentage (50.4%), and three-point percentage (39.4%), while committing the fewest turnovers in conference play (7.0). In fact, their turnovers on the season in good for the second-fewest total in the country (8.2). And by limiting their own mistakes, they afford themselves the luxury of being able to remain disciplined on the defensive end, where they have done a tremendous job of clamping down on the opposition; the Badgers have yielded just 61.4 points in five conference outings, second-best in the Big Ten, while sending their opponents to the charity stripe just 11.6 times per game, fewest in the league. That last bit is key, for this team doesn’t force many extra possessions on defense, evidenced by their 8.4 turnovers and 2.8 steals, both of which rank second-worst in the conference. The bottom line is that these guys stay at home defensively, and don’t take many chances, but if they can’t make a high percentage of their own shots, then they could be in for a long night against a team that has played them to the whistle over the last two years.
Meanwhile, after leading the Hawkeyes to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, Fran McCaffery has his team poised for their best finish in eight years. Iowa (13-5, 4-1 in Big Ten) has gotten off to a solid start in conference play, which is a big deal given the struggles they experienced against the rest of the league in 2014. Last season, they were a disappointing 9-9 against the rest of the Big Ten, dropping five out of their final six contests. Though it’s still early, the returns have been very promising; with the exception of a fourteen-point loss to Michigan State, McCaffery’s charges have largely ran through the rest of the conference schedule with ease thus far, including a pair of victories over Ohio State. That was the case this past Saturday, as the Hawkeyes disposed of the Buckeyes for the second time in nineteen days; after proving victorious in Columbus back on December 30th, the hosts dominated their opponent in a 76-67 win, shooting a stellar 51.1% from the field, while limiting the visitors to a mere 38.3% shooting. In an odd twist, the Buckeyes attempted thirteen more shots from the field, largely on the strength of their fourteen offensive rebounds, but still couldn’t manage to throw the ball into the ocean, as the Aaron White and Co. relegated them to a terrible 16-of-42 from within the three-point arc alone (38.1%). The difference in the game was at the free-throw line, where Iowa continued to flex their muscle, netting twenty-five of their thirty-five attempts (71.4%), eleven more freebies than their opponent. White led the way with twenty-two points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field (75.0%), but was the game’s poster child from the line, where he calmly drained ten of his twelve attempts (83.3%). Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury combined for another twenty-four points, along with thirteen rebounds and a pair of blocks. The hosts pounced on their opposition early, leading 37-26 at halftime, which proved to be a margin to comfortable to give up. However, they best not fall asleep after gaining a hefty advantage against the Badgers, for when they last traveled to Madison, they saw a nine-point halftime lead evaporate in the final twenty minutes en route to a four-point loss.
In order to snap their current three-game losing streak against Wisconsin, Iowa is going to have to roll up their sleeves and get their collective hands dirty, particularly in the paint where they must take advantage of their tremendous size and length. McCaffery has five players in his rotation that stand 6′-8″ or taller, including the aforementioned Woodbury, who is a remarkable 7′-1″. True, Kaminsky is one of the game’s best, and a legitimate seven-footer, but he is a far more finesse-oriented player, who is better when he has space to work with away from the rim. In essence, the Hawkeyes plethora of bigs should be able to rough him up. The true test though, will be whether or not they will be able to get to the free-throw line; Iowa is one of the best teams in the country at drawing fouls, leading to a healthy 29.4 free-throw attempts per game, good for second-most in the Big Ten, where they net a solid 75.8% of their freebies, which is the twelfth-highest figure in Division-1. In fact, McCaffery’s charges have lived off of the charity stripe with free-throws accounting for a ridiculous 30.1% of their points in conference play. Four different players have attempted at least forty free-throws, including White, who has shot a whopping 143 of them already, making 119 of them (83.2%). The Senior Forward has enjoyed a career campaign, leading the Hawkeyes in scoring (16.1), rebounding (7.1), and free-throw attempts (10.7), while shooting 52.2% from the field. However, if this team cannot make an impact from the free-throw line, then it leaves one to wonder just how they’re going to cope with the raucous crowd at the Kohl Center. Among other things, shooting a high volume of free-throws slows the game down, rendering the crowd a non-factor, but most importantly, it allows the defense to get set on their own accord. Simply put, Iowa is not a good defensive team. Despite all of their size, they still struggle to stop their opponents, allowing 68.2 points on 44.4% shooting from the field, putting them at eleventh and tenth in league play respectively. There are only fourteen teams in the Big Ten, folks, so that ought to give you an idea as to where they need to improve. Like their counterparts tonight, they do a solid job on the boards (plus-2.8), but don’t apply much pressure on the perimeter (9.6 turnovers), which is a big reason why they’ve oftentimes been torched from three (36.7%). That last bit doesn’t bode well against the conference’s top three-point shooting unit, which could cause the Hawkeyes to overstretch themselves too much, which is precisely what happened in their two meetings last season.