The first game of 2021 for the Rutgers men’s basketball team is one of the most anticipated contests this century. The no. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes are 8-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten ahead of visiting the RAC at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights enter this matchup at 7-1 overall, 3-1 in conference play and with plenty of injury issues, most notably leading scored Ron Harper Jr. These two teams have had some great battles over the past few seasons and Saturday should be no different, even if Rutgers finds itself short handed once again.
In an effort to find more about the Hawkeyes, I was fortunate to connect with Harrison Starr, who leads the basketball coverage at SB Nation’s Iowa site, Black Heart Gold Pants. Iowa has always been a tremendous offensive team under head coach Fran McCaffrey, but this season they are playing at another level. Of course, having a favorite for National Player of the Year in Luka Garza is a big reason for that. However, Iowa is once again a very good three-point shooting team and have even shown signs of being better defensively.
I asked Harrison about all of this and more, so let’s tip things off here.
AB: What were expectations for this team before the season began and how have they performed to those expectations through ten games.
HS: Broadly speaking, there were very high expectations for this team internally and among fans. The driving force of them has been Luka Garza, discussed below, as he probably doesn’t return if he didn’t have his sights set at cutting down the nets to end the season. More imminently, everyone is expecting a push for the Big Ten title and to remain in that upper echelon of teams, nationally, throughout the season.
People are skeptical, though, and probably will remain as such until consistent defensive performances happen every time out. I think the Minnesota loss brought everything down a bit but they bounced back nicely against Northwestern. The Big Ten is going to be tough every night - tomorrow is no exception - so whenever a team feels like they let one slip away, it’s probably going to cause a bit of panic amongst the fanbase.
AB: Iowa is having a tremendous season on the offensive end, but how dependent has that success been on the play of NPOY candidate Luka Garza? Does he have any weaknesses?
HS: Luka Garza went and got himself a three-point shot so he is now a bit of a Voltron in terms of being able to do everything offensively. When he is feeling it from deep, as he was against Iowa State & Purdue, he is nearly unguardable. Iowa is probably at their best, however, when he is not options 1, 2, and 3. When Iowa’s guards can make teams pay for doubling Garza, it makes everyone’s job easier offensively though there have been many times this season - often against low major competition - where the Hawks just threw the ball down to him and let him cook. That’s pretty fun.
Where teams have succeeded against him is by being able to rotate fresh bodies against him to wear him down on both sides of the floor. North Carolina did that with their bevy of big men as did Purdue, Minnesota, & even Northwestern. He doesn’t have lateral quickness on defense, either, which makes him a little more susceptible in the pick and roll as he’s uncharacteristically found himself in foul trouble a couple times this season.
AB: After the Northwestern game is it safe to say that Jordan Bohannon is returning to his old form or still to early to tell? How important is that for Iowa to be as dangerous as usual from behind the arc?
HS: That’s the million dollar question. There’s been some consternation this season around Iowa’s PG position and really, that goes away if Bohannon is returns to the 40% shooter from deep he’s proven to be throughout his career.
If his shot is dropping, it makes everybody’s job easier - especially Fran McCaffery’s. Bohannon shares PG duties with backup Joe Toussaint who is a much different player than Bohannon as a much quicker, more defensive-oriented option. Adding a bit of complexity is Connor McCaffery, Fran’s son, who can run the point but often serves as Iowa’s power forward in smaller lineups. Neither Connor nor Toussaint are the shooters Bohannon is - few are - so the spacing gets much different if Bohannon is not out there even if the defense improves.
With Bohannon coming off two hip surgeries over the last couple years, he looks much more spry but still is a mediocre-at-best defender. His shooting covers up that deficiency.
AB: The Hawkeyes has been tremendous on the offensive glass this season, but have been equally bad statistically in allowing opponents to do the same. Why are they so good on one end and lacking on the other end rebounding wise?
HS: It’s just my opinion, but I view this a little bit as a “lack of urgency” statistic considering Iowa’s worst defensive rebounding games happened in games where they won with general ease. Only one game was it a true deficiency - against Gonzaga - as Iowa had a stretch defensively where the Zags missed a ton of shots but rebounded so many of their own misses Iowa couldn’t really cut into the lead.
This isn’t to say it’s not an opportunity for opponents. WIth the 6’5” McCaffery and 6’6” Joe Wieskamp often defending bigger opponents, a team can absolutely outrebound Iowa if they scheme for it. The Hawkeyes have done a solid job rebounding as a team - Bohannon had five against Northwestern - to limit those second chance opportunities, though it does limit Iowa’s transition offense.
AB: Iowa is about the same defensively from a statistic standpoint this season but have played pretty well in two of its last three Big Ten games. What has been the key to the recent defensive improvement and do you think it’s sustainable?
HS: I think you hit on it pretty well in question #4 vis a vis rebounding. To me, that is the easiest way for this Iowa team to improve defensively and perhaps the most sustainable. From a scheme standpoint, Fran seems to use 5 defenders to guard 4 guys, meaning one is often left open at the three point line.
I think this is often a function of confirmation bias of it being unsuccessful, as the fanbase more remembers a random guy going off than an opponent’s star being held in check. Ron Harper, Jr. came from nowhere to torch Iowa from deep in his freshman year. It certainly bit Iowa in the rear against Minnesota as Brandon Johnson, a career 30% shooter, went off for 8/10 from 3. Even Pete Nance got it going early and forced Iowa to adjust their gameplan at half.
Ultimately, Iowa does not need to be good defensively because their offense is so great. Pace adjusted, that means about 1.1 points/possession is a winning number for an Iowa defense which multiplies out to about 75 points a game. By no means is that great, but to me it’s sustainable.
AB: Rutgers and Iowa have had some great battles in recent years. How does the fan base view the series overall and do you think it is one of the better one’s in the Big Ten right now?
HS: Very broadly speaking, Rutgers is no longer viewed as a gimme. Steve Pikiell has done a helluva job in that respect.
Speaking for only myself, and this is a minority opinion, I’m thrilled Rutgers basketball is in the Big Ten. I think the RAC is a genuinely great college atmosphere and I’m definitely a little sad it’s neutered due to COVID-19 protocols, though empty arenas are absolutely the right path forward for this season.
Considering Iowa has a number of more “local” rivalries - Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin - it’s tough to put Rutgers into that tier for Iowa opponents, though recent history has them on the fringe of it. The two teams have certainly had their share of battles and the 2019 game at RU was one of the most thrilling finishes from the last couple of seasons.
AB: What is the key to attacking Iowa and how do you see the game against Rutgers playing out?
HS: What makes Iowa so tough is teams need to be absolutely cooking to beat them. Guard-play has been an achilles heel for this team so far - Jalen Suggs & Marcus Carr were arguably the two best players on the court in their games against Iowa. If any Rutgers guard can provide solid facsimiles of those games - close to 30 points, deadly from 3 - then it will put Iowa in a bind defensively. Next, an opponent very likely needs to challenge Garza, or at least make his life difficult without getting themselves into too much trouble foul-wise. The coup de gras is if someone unexpected can perform really well, particularly from 3.
I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen from Rutgers so far this season but think Iowa has a decided offensive edge if the Scarlet Knights are without Harper again. Rutgers defense will give them a shot, though, and I expect it to be decided in the final minute or two. First to 80 probably wins.
Thanks to Harrison for giving great insight on Iowa ahead of Saturday’s matchup against Rutgers. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of Iowa athletics, visit Black Heart Gold Pants. To read my answers to questions about Rutgers basketball, click here.