Points in Transition: Iowa vs. Penn State preview

Hawkeyes facing a much-improved defensive team in Nittany Lions

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Isaiah Moss (4) celebrates his trey off the behind-the-back pass by Iowa Hawkeyes forward Cordell Pemsl (not shown) during the first half of their men's college basketball game against the Grambling State Tigers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Isaiah Moss (4) celebrates his trey off the behind-the-back pass by Iowa Hawkeyes forward Cordell Pemsl (not shown) during the first half of their men's college basketball game against the Grambling State Tigers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Nothing like jumping into conference play right after a frustrating, fruitless half of basketball at Virginia Tech. The Iowa men’s basketball team has no small task in the 39th-ranked team on KenPom, which has started off this season quite nicely under Pat Chambers.

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 Penn State:

Player to Watch

Iowa: Isaiah Moss, guard — Before the Virginia Tech game, Moss had been the leading scorer, but a (very) quiet night changed that. Still, Moss is a vital part of the Hawkeyes’ success. What we saw in Blacksburg was a situation where his not being productive can halt the offensive production. Jordan Bohannon can’t shoulder the shooting load alone. Moss’ game Tuesday was an outlier this year, and he needs to make sure that stays the case for Iowa to open Big Ten play with a win.

Penn State: Josh Reaves, guard — It would be easy to tell you Tony Carr is the guy to watch for the Nittany Lions. At 21.3 points per game, he’s started this season great. But it wasn’t Carr who went off at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the spring. It was Reaves, who went for 25 points, five assists and five rebounds on 10 of 12 shooting. At 6-4, 210, Iowa is going to have a hard time guarding both guys, and Reaves could have another big day. He’s got the best offensive rating on the team (129.4 has him 132nd out of 2,200 players nationally) and is very good defensively. His 5.2 percent steal rate is 24th in the nation.

Strengths

Iowa: This entry could probably be pretty short, considering the last 20 minutes of basketball. But let’s look at something mentioned in this week’s Making the Grade: Iowa was very, very good on the boards throughout Tuesday night’s game.

The Hawkeyes have moved up to 55th in the nation on KenPom in offensive rebounding percentage. They spent most of last year hovering around 100th in that category. The shooting obviously sank the efforts on the boards in Blacksburg, but outrebounding an athletic and active team like the Hokies is no small feat.

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When Iowa was at its best on the boards, it was a mix of effective box outs and positioning. The Hawkeyes’ positioning hasn’t ever been a huge issue when it comes to rebounding, but 50/50 balls that hadn’t ended up in their hands previously did on Tuesday. For Iowa, that’s a huge boon, because despite that second half, offense still is the strong suit and giving themselves more chances never is a bad thing.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions haven’t played the toughest schedule in the world so far — their strength of schedule is 189th, which is far better than Iowa’s, for what that’s worth — but have been very good defensively through eight games.

Penn State ranks 22nd in defensive efficiency at 0.935 points per possession, and have held four of its eight opponents to less than 60 points — including Pitt. Chambers’ team holds opponents to 47.4 percent effective field goal shooting, is ranked 15th in turnover percentage at 24.6 percent and fourth in the nation in steal percentage at 14.3 percent. It’s a small sample size, but the Hawkeyes are going to have their hands full on the offensive end, and a poor shooting night is going to play right into the Nittany Lions’ hands.

Weaknesses

Iowa: This one we will keep pretty short because it’s been well-covered ground already this week.

The Hawkeyes have spent this season chasing their tails on defense, and it only gets worse when the offense isn’t flowing. What’s most curious about that so far is that this is the same team that looked like it figured things out at the end of last year. Adding two guys shouldn’t, in theory, make that much of a difference. It’s some sort of mental block, as Cordell Pemsl and Tyler Cook mentioned.

But Jordan Bohannon let slip something Tuesday night that might lend credence to the idea that shutting out the outside noise isn’t just a cliché.

“Obviously there’s expectations from the outside, and obviously we’re listening — we try to limit it, but it’s out there and it’s hard for us to try to keep our heads up,” Bohannon said. “There’s a lot of good guys in this locker room, and guys with experience.

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“We just have to know that things aren’t always as high as they seem and not always as low as they seem. We’ve got to take that as a steppingstone.”

Penn State: While Penn State has been quite effective on defense overall, there are two areas in which Iowa could exploit their Big Ten opener opponent: 3-point shooting and at the free throw line.

Let’s talk free throw rate first: the free throw disparity in Blacksburg was something most of you noticed very quickly, but sometimes that’s how it goes. The Hawkeyes returning home should even that out a little bit, and Iowa had been good at getting to the line before Tuesday. Penn State, meanwhile, ranks 170th in opponent free throw rate, which means Iowa should have a good shot to make hay at the line.

Most importantly, though, the Nittany Lions rank 288th in opponent 3-point percentage at 39 percent. The lid won’t stay on the rim forever for the Hawkeyes, and given Penn State ranks 28th in opponent 2-point percentage, it’s going to have to come off Saturday. Penn State’s defense crashes the lane, so Saturday should be a guards' game. That might make this more an Iowa weakness than Penn State, but still.

Iowa wins if …

the Hawkeyes shoot their way out of a slump — even just a 20-minute-long one — and continue to crash the boards the way they did Tuesday. The Nittany Lions are an active team that moves quicker than in the past, so Saturday has to be something resembling the first half against the Hokies.

Penn State wins if …

Iowa’s guards struggle like they did against Virginia Tech and if the Nittany Lions can go on a run if/when that happens. The Nittany Lions have talented guards and have played well defensively, and if that continues, the Hawkeyes are in trouble.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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