Who would have thought a mid-January battle between ranked Big Ten foes would be something Rutgers is a part of, but amazingly it’s true. The Scarlet Knights return to the scene of the crime at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday night more than 10 months after they defeated Iowa with the program’s best performance arguably in years. It’s unrealistic to expect a dominant double digit victory again tonight, but the matchup is a fascinating one. Iowa brings one of the best offenses in the country and tops in the Big Ten, while Rutgers will counter with the same type of standing with its defense.
In an effort to find out more about tonight’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Jonah Parker, who is the site manager of SB Nation’s Iowa site, Black Heart Gold Pants. They do a great job covering Iowa athletics and Jonah gave some good perspective on this current Hawkeyes basketball team. How they are meeting expectations, the rise of Luka Garza, what to expect defensively from Iowa and much more. Let’s tip things off here.
AB: What were expectations for this team coming into the season and how have they matched up to those so far?
JP: Expectations were pretty mixed heading into the season. After losing Tyler Cook to the NBA, Isaiah Moss to Kansas and the prospect of not having Jordan Bohannon all year due to hip surgery, most people didn’t expect this to be an NCAA Tournament team.
Now, more than halfway through the year, we’ve seen those expectations shift a few times. Following the early home loss to DePaul, the fanbase thought this would be a lost season. But this group fought back and heading into the winter break, on the heels of officially losing Bohannon for the rest of the year, we all thought this was a bubble team that had done the work in the non-conference to hold on through the injuries and land on the right side.
Then the injury bug struck again on the road against Penn State. CJ Fredrick was suddenly absent in the second half of a shootout and the Hawkeyes were one shooter short. When we later learned he had a stress reaction injury in his foot and could miss 4-6 weeks, as Iowa shot a historically bad 12% from deep in a loss at Nebraska, the season seemed loss.
But again this group fought through adversity and took down Maryland without Fredrick, then unexpectedly got him back for a road win at Northwestern and another top-20 win at home over Michigan. Now, the fanbase is fully expecting this team to continue coming up big to make the tournament. Surely that means we’re due for another turn in the road.
AB: How is this Iowa team different without Jordan Bohannon and was Luka Garza expected to make as much of a leap forward as he has this season?
JP: The loss of Bohannon was big. He’s a tremendous shooter with unlimited range and absolutely no fear of the big shot with the game on the line. Without him, the Hawkeyes are without their closer and that guy who can make something out of nothing.
However, his absence has made this team less reliant on those heroics and impossible shots. They’ve gotten major contributions from CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp on the perimeter, and of course the big time step up in Luka Garza’s game.
We all expected Garza to make a bit of a leap this year, but anyone who says they expected this type of year (other than perhaps Garza himself or his dad, Frank) would be lying. He’s always had excellent footwork and a clean stroke from deep, but his development over the last year has been incredible. He’s gone from a weapon in the arsenal to a national player of the year candidate. And it doesn’t seem to matter how many defenders opponents throw at him. He’s a ton of fun to watch, when you aren’t playing against him.
AB: Iowa has the top offensive efficiency in Big Ten play, which is not surprising as they are typically near the top under head coach Fran McCaffrey. What is surprising is that they currently hold a defensive efficiency of ninth in the conference and 81st which marks real improvement from last season. What has been the biggest reason for the defensive progress this season?
JP: Nobody is going to sit here and pretend that Iowa is a really good defensive team and they certainly don’t get after teams as well as Rutgers, but we’ve seen a vast improvement this year from the last couple years. A big piece of that has been more usage of zone.
Fran is known for recruiting longer players, but often has guys who are as quick laterally. Despite that, the Hawkeyes have been a stubbornly man-to-man team for the most part, though they have always tried to mix in several defenses within a game. This year we are seeing a 2-3 zone as the primary defense and you can tell it just fits the personnel better.
This year’s group does seem to have more quickness on the perimeter when they are forced to go man, and freshman Joe Toussaint is a big part of that, but intensity from CJ Fredrick, Bakari Evelyn and Joe Wieskamp has been vastly improved from what we saw last year. Add to that much better rotations to help on shooters and the Hawkeyes have a serviceable defense for the first time in several years. Add that to the always potent offense and you get a top-25 team.
AB: How do you think Iowa will attack Rutgers and what weaknesses do they have that could be a concern in this matchup?
JP: The obvious answer is I would expect Iowa to feed Luka Garza. They are always going to feed him. He’s too good to not run the offense through him. How effective that is depends on how Rutgers decides to defend him and how well Iowa is shooting.
The Hawkeyes ran into trouble in Lincoln when the Huskers triple-teamed Garza most of the game. The trouble wasn’t his ineffectiveness, as he finished with 16 points and 18 boards. However, the triple teams left Iowa shooters so wide open they couldn’t help but to take 33 shots from beyond the arc. On any normal night you’d expect the Hawkeyes to shoot Nebraska out of that approach and we saw that against Maryland and Michigan. In Lincoln, however, Iowa made just 4 of those 33 (largely uncontested) shots and lost.
I think the best way to slow Garza down is to attack him on the other end of the floor with Myles Johnson and hope to get him in foul trouble. Northwestern had some success with this, limiting Garza to only 24 minutes. I think Rutgers has better personnel to limit the scoring in those shortened minutes.
And on the other end, I would look for the Scarlet Knights to pressure Iowa more on the perimeter to force mistakes. The Hawkeyes are prone to turnovers and can be forced into speeding things up if the guards, Toussaint in particular, are facing tight defense.
AB: We have one of the best offenses in college basketball facing one of the best defenses in this game, who wins and what’s the biggest reason why?
JP: Well, at the end of the day this is still a home game for the Hawkeyes. Typically I wouldn’t make a big deal out of any sort of home court advantage in Iowa City, but the Big Ten has been a house of horrors for road teams this year. I expect a right one that goes back and forth with each team building 5+ point leads during some runs, but I think Iowa gets the edge down the home stretch. Iowa 81, Rutgers 77
Thanks to Jonah for giving such great insight on Iowa basketball ahead of tonight’s game against Rutgers. You can follow him on Twitter here and visit Black Heart Gold Pants for more coverage on the Hawkeyes. To read my answers to Jonah’s questions on Rutgers basketball, click here.