As the starting point of the second half of the season begins today for Rutgers, they take on a talented, but young Iowa team. This game for the Scarlet Knights will be their fifth out of their last six that they are playing away from the RAC. The program is still searching for their first road win in Big Ten play since entering the conference two seasons ago. Can they finally break through with a win tonight?
It’s been an interesting season so far for Iowa, who enter today’s game with a 9-7 record and are 1-2 to start conference play. After making the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, the program is in rebuild mode this year. Senior Peter Jok leads the Big Ten in scoring and is complemented by four freshman in the starting lineup. This is a talented and high scoring team that loves to shoot from behind the arc. Will the Rutgers defense be up for the task?
To find out more about the Hawkeyes, I was fortunate to speak with Max Brekke, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants. I asked Max about what the expectations are for this team, what makes Jok so good, which key players to watch for besides their star senior, as well as his thoughts on the game. Let’s tip it off here.
Iowa has had an interesting start in Big Ten play after beating Michigan in OT and losing to Nebraska in double OT. What is the current state of this team heading into the Rutgers game?
I think they'll be just fine for their battle with the Scarlet Knights on Sunday. They might be a bit tired (both physically and mentally) after playing three overtime periods in a week, but overall, they're healthy going into this one. I'm personally most interested to see how this team can put it together mentally after the tough loss to Nebraska. Iowa is a really young team, and after such an up-and-down game, it'll be interesting to see how they respond. This team has a lot of swagger, so I'm optimistic that they'll be able to get it out of their heads pretty quickly.
At 9-7, Iowa played a challenging non-conference schedule before league play began. What were expectations for this team at the start of the season and has their performance lived up to them?
As dumb as it sounds, this team didn't have any expectations coming into the season. The Hawks lost Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, and All-American Jarrod Uthoff, all of whom were starters in 2015-16, so no one knew what the lineup would look like outside of star guard Peter Jok.
So while there were no real expectations, most fans realized that Iowa would likely be a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament, and that the NIT was a more realistic expectation for these young Hawks. Maybe even the CIT? Well, right now, if Iowa can finish the Big Ten regular season at about .500, I'd say they have a better shot at the CIT than anything, but if they can somehow end it with a winning record, I'd say they're a lock for the NIT.
What makes Iowa star Peter Jok so good, how much has he improved in his career and why doesn't he get more recognition across college basketball?
What makes Peter Jok so good is that he's an elite scorer. Let's take the Nebraska game for example: Jok scored 34 on 50% shooting, and at one point in the second half, scored 16 straight points for the Hawkeyes. The guy single-handedly carried the team for a large portion of the game, which is what you want from your senior leader. When he's on his game like he was in Lincoln, he's almost unstoppable - he doesn't need a whole lot of space to throw up a shot he has such a quick release that he's pretty difficult to guard on the perimeter.
He's improved a whole ton throughout his college career, especially in terms of shot selection and scoring skill - he drives to the hoop a bit more and is more than just a catch and shoot kind of guy. His most important improvement, however, is in the other facets of his game. When he burst onto the scene at Iowa, he was nothing more than a scorer. After falling into the dreaded sophomore slump, he's improved his numbers significantly each and every year - specifically, he's scoring about seven points, 2.5 rebounds, and an assist per game over his 2015-16 averages in very similar minutes. While his defense still isn't particularly strong, he's steadily improved there from where he was as a freshman, too.
As for why he's not getting more recognition as one of the best players in the nation? It's likely because until this season, he hasn't been the most important player on his team. Last year, Jarrod Uthoff was the hype machine on what was at one point a #3 Iowa team on his way to his All-American honors. The year prior, Aaron White was the focal point of the team and the most important player. Now that Iowa isn't as good this year, most people aren't thinking about the Hawks so he's been flying in under the radar a bit, I'd suppose.
Aside from Jok being deadly from three-point range, Iowa has four other players shooting 34% or better from behind the arc. With the team averaging more than 24 attempts per game, how much does this team live and die by the three?
It's an important part of Iowa's game, but the only individual player on this team who lives and dies by the three is freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon. Bohannon shoots 68% of his shots from deep, which is a ridiculous number. Otherwise, Jok will shoot a bunch of them, but he's also not afraid to put the ball on the floor and pull up for a long range two. The rest of the squad is a lot more selective when it comes to taking threes, which helps facilitate the ball movement that leads to such a dynamic offense.
That being said, as a team that shoots so many three-pointers, the Hawkeyes need to make them in order to be successful. If they have an off shooting night and continue to throw them up, well, they're not going to be all too successful. In games where they're going through the hoop, they're tough to beat, as evidenced by the two straight OT games. That's #analysis, right?
What is an area that has been an issue of late that Iowa must improve on in this game against Rutgers?
Defense has been an issue all season, but the thing that probably hurts Iowa the most is their youth. During the Nebraska game, there were a few spots where Iowa just needed to take care of the basketball and instead made some sort of silly freshman mistakes. It makes sense since four of Iowa's five starters are freshmen, but from comments that they've made in postgame comments, there are things that they realize they need to fix. If they want to beat Rutgers, they're going to have to realize what situations require them to be aggressive or more conservative.
On a similar note, Coach McCaffery needs to realize that he has a bunch of freshmen on the floor and that he occasionally needs to call a timeout to reorient his team. There were a few situations at the end of the game where Iowa could have desperately used a timeout, and instead he stuck with his mantra of letting them play it out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's questionable when you have four freshmen and a sophomore on the court trying to close out a victory.
Aside from Jok, who are a couple other key players that Iowa needs to play well on Sunday in order to win?
Tyler Cook is going to be a great Iowa player somewhere down the line, but for now, we'll just say he's really good. He has an infectious energy for a forward and an create his own offense in the post, which compliments Iowa's perimeter shooters nicely. Cook is Iowa's second leading scorer with over 13 ppg and is most dangerous when he's able to get a bit of space and dribble. He's had a few drives this season that have ended in punishing dunks and he can take advantage of similarly sized defenders in the post.
Similarly, Cordell Pemsl has come up huge for the Hawkeyes so far this season. He's shooting 67% and seems to only know how to take good shots. What he's best at is backing down defenders in the post and maneuvering his way past them for a layup. His game is actually really old school and he's great at initiating contact to draw a foul. His free throw shooting isn't great at 55% but it's actually been improving as of late.
Honorable mention to Jordan Bohannon. The freshman sharp shooter is Iowa's only true point guard and has really come into his own during Big Ten play, causing Michigan head coach Jim Beilein to say he's playing as good as any point guard in the country. He's an exciting young player who can make you pay from deep.
What is your prediction for the game?
I think Iowa's gained a lot of confidence in the past couple games, despite the loss to Nebraska. They've proved that they are capable of keeping up with Big Ten teams (well, maybe not Purdue) and that they're not afraid of anyone. They should be excited to get back to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and with the crowd behind them, they should regain their swagger.
I'm still not convinced Rutgers is for real after dropping to 0-3 in conference play and don't think they'll be able to keep up with this Iowa offense, so I'll give the Hawks the advantage on their home court. Peter Jok has himself a night and goes over 20+ points for the third straight game. Iowa wins, 75-68.
Thanks to Max for giving us great insight on Iowa basketball ahead of this afternoon’s game against Rutgers. Give him a follow on twitter here and to read more on the Hawkeyes, visit Black Heart Gold Pants here. To read my answers to Max’s questions on Rutgers basketball, click here.
To read my full game preview on Rutgers at Iowa, click here.