With all due respect to Southern, Drake, Southern Utah, Colorado and Northern Illinois, the resumption of Big Ten play will be the clearest and surest sign of whether or not the Iowa men’s basketball team has made real improvement.
For every conference game, we’ll look at key players, strengths and weaknesses for both teams and the key to winning for both sides. Here’s a breakdown of the matchup between Iowa and Michigan:
Player to Watch
Iowa: Tyler Cook, forward — If he can continue to improve his passing out of double teams, Cook is fast on his way to being an upper-level player in the Big Ten. His back-to-the-basket game has been incredibly efficient in the five-game winning streak, and his rebounding has been solid. The most important thing, though, could be his midrange game. Hitting that 15 to 18-foot jumper is a “game-changer” as head coach Fran McCaffery put it. His being a go-to scorer in all situations solves a lot of problems.
Michigan: Moritz Wagner, forward — At last check, there was some doubt as to whether or not the dynamic Wolverines forward would be back for this game, but his ankle injury came about two weeks ago and it was considered short-term then. Let’s assume he’ll play. If that’s the case, the Hawkeyes are going to have a lot to deal with. He’s versatile offensively — a 37.5-percent 3-point shooter and a bear to defend in the paint. He’s also in the top 20 individually on KenPom in defensive rebound percentage. He was a standout at the NBA Combine last summer, but chose to return. Good for Michigan, bad for everyone else.
Iowa: The likelihood of Iowa replicating the shooting start it had against Northern Illinois is very low — not that the Hawkeyes aren’t capable of shooting well, but that it’s quite literally unheard of to sustain that kind of pace.
As much as the record-tying 34 assists has to do with sharing the ball well — more on that in a minute — maybe the most important part of driving that assist number up was Iowa’s shot-selection. Yes, a lot of the assists were easy looks in the paint or plays in transition. But it was the other plays that shifted, the ones in the past in which Iowa players had maybe thought a little too hard or not thought enough about what shot they could get.
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Like when Maishe Dailey hit that 3 at the top of the key against Colorado, when Iowa saw a good shot against Northern Illinois, no one hesitated. They were in tune to the looks they wanted and needed and capitalized on them.
Michigan: Losing Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and DJ Wilson, among others, has been enough to take Michigan from one of the best, most efficient offenses in the country last season — they ended No. 4 in Adjusted Offense — to one that has been good but not great so far this year. Despite losing those guys, though, the Wolverines’ defense has improved quite a bit while playing a solidly-difficult non-conference slate.
Michigan sits No. 24 in Adjusted Defense at 0.942 points per possession allowed, and has done so by choking away chances for its opponents.
The Wolverines’ opponents don’t often get easy looks, and with that, don’t get second opportunities via the boards. Michigan ranks No. 13 on KenPom in opponent offensive rebound percentage, have a turnover percentage of 21.9 percent — 49th in the nation — and hold opponents to a 46.9 effective field goal percentage.
Iowa moving the ball and getting the efficient looks it got against Colorado and Northern Illinois is going to take a lot of work.
Iowa: There’s still a sloppiness with which the Hawkeyes can play that will be a major issue if it persists.
Iowa took care of the ball against Southern and against Northern Illinois, but even in blowout wins against Drake and Southern Utah, turnovers got into double digits. And for the hundredth time, the Hawkeyes beat Colorado despite the way they handled the ball for the middle 20 minutes of that game. Zooming out on this season, what was seen against Iowa State, Indiana, Penn State and Colorado is the rule, not the exception.
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The issues come when Iowa gets out of the flow that works — either sped up by trying to do too much too quickly or when the offense stagnates with lack of movement. So much of what makes Iowa good is when the guys off the ball are doing their jobs. When that stops, passers are forced into no-win situations.
Patience is hard, especially when it’s a group of guys who want so desperately to be good. Big Ten play will require way more patience.
Michigan: The Wolverines are not a great offensive rebounding team, sitting 214th on KenPom in offensive rebound percentage, but even as a less-efficient offense, that’s not the weakest link they’ve got right now.
Michigan does not get to the line with efficiency, or even that much frequency. The Wolverines rank 334th of 351 in free throw rate, meaning they are not putting defenses in a bad enough position to foul and get free looks at the stripe. Especially knowing McCaffery’s consistency sitting guys with two fouls, it’s a handy tool to have to get important players out of the game.
Even when Michigan does get to the line, though, they’re really not very good there. The Wolverines shoot 61.7 percent from the free throw line, which is better than just five teams in the country. Maybe it’s too much to worry about free throw shooting, but if the game is close and Iowa needs to put Michigan on the line late, this could loom large.
Iowa wins if …
the Hawkeyes can take care of a share the ball like they did against Northern Illinois and not in the rough parts of the Colorado game. As mentioned above, the Wolverines are a solid defensive team, so Iowa needs to be efficient to get its first Big Ten win of the season.
Michigan wins if …
the defense that has been very good so far this season continues to be so against an Iowa team that has found a bit of a groove offensively. The Wolverines have a player with the ability to go toe-to-toe size-wise with any of the Hawkeyes, too, so his playing well will be important.
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