Points in Transition: Iowa vs. No. 21 Wisconsin

Hawkeyes meet Badgers at very different points in their seasons; Cook/Happ matchup one to watch

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All of a sudden, postseason talk has ramped up as thick as ever for the Iowa men’s basketball team — a dominant road win against a ranked Maryland team will do that for you. The timing of this latest surge is good for the Hawkeyes, as bids for postseason play often take late-season performance into account at a high rate. They’ve also hit their stride at the perfect time to play one of the best teams in the conference.

For each Big Ten game this season, 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 No. 21 Wisconsin:

Key player

Iowa: Tyler Cook, forward — The performance he gave at Maryland was a glimpse into what the Hawkeyes will have in him for a long time to come. He’s played that way — but not necessarily finished that consistently — since the Illinois game. It’ll take that kind of game again to deal with Wisconsin’s frontcourt, which features a couple of the best players in the conference.

Wisconsin: Ethan Happ, forward — One of those best players is this guy. Happ is a semifinalist for the Naismith Award and ranks sixth on KenPom.com’s Player of the Year list. He doesn’t shoot a ton of jump shots — but doesn’t have to. He positions himself well and makes great use of the space he’s given — which isn’t ever a lot — and scores and rebounds as well as any frontcourt player in the nation. He’s priority No. 1 to stop for Iowa.

Strengths

Iowa: In the Hawkeyes’ two-game win streak, the usual things that have accompanied Iowa wins were there: efficient, purposeful ball movement, hot shooting and solid rebounding. But particularly against Maryland, two other areas were effective and allowed the Hawkeyes to break the game open: second-chance points and points off turnovers.

Iowa has forced just shy of 18 turnovers per game in its last three games, but the Hawkeyes were the most efficient in turning those into points against the Terrapins. Iowa turned 14 Maryland turnovers into 22 points. A struggle the Hawkeyes had in previous losing streaks was backing up stops with points, and that seems to have been corrected recently.

As for the second-chance points, that’s a boon any time for the Hawkeyes because rebounding has been a peaks-and-valleys kind of thing all season. Both those areas will be key battlegrounds in Madison.

Wisconsin: Recent struggles aside, Wisconsin still is one of the best teams in the conference and the country because it does some very historically Wisconsin things: it rebounds and plays defense as well as anyone.

The Badgers rank No. 1 in the Big Ten (conference stats only) in Adjusted Defense, according to KenPom.com, at 0.988 points per possession allowed. They sit third in offensive rebounding percentage at 34.3 percent and fourth in opponent offensive rebounding percentage at 29.7 percent. The very talented frontcourt controls the glass and the paint.

Additionally, the Wisconsin defense often forces opponents into bad situations — both shooting and passing. The Badgers rank first in opponent two-point shot percentage (42.9 percent) and defensive steal percentage at 10.7. Aggressive, efficient defense has been much of what Wisconsin has leaned on.

Weaknesses

Iowa: Even though things are far more up than down right now for Iowa, both of the last two wins have come with struggles that could’ve sank the Hawkeyes both times.

In particular, there are still plenty of possessions in which Iowa players over-rotate in their zone or are caught on screens in man and open shooters knock down shots. Against Maryland, Iowa would trap strong side on the baseline, but on multiple occasions the weakside guard — who was opened up as a result of the trap — got a skip pass and open shot while Iowa defenders sprinted late to recover.

McCaffery has talked a lot about ancitipating, and while his players have gotten much better at it, moments like that can still bite. If Maryland shot a little better, the game might not have broken open like it did.

Wisconsin: There’s a common factor in the Badgers’ last two losses (both by 10 points): their best player, Ethan Happ, was limited by foul trouble — he fouled out of the Michigan State game, in fact — and scored a combined 12 points in those two games. He’s not the end-all be-all for Wisconsin, but obviously he’s a huge part of what they do on both ends.

Ohio State dominated the boards in its 83-73 win — to the tune of a 38-25 advantage — and moved the ball well to find open shots. Michigan State won the rebounding battle, too, and also shot really well from outside.

In conference play only, the Badgers rank 13th in opponent 3-point percentage, and big hits have been taken in the recent losing streak. Given Iowa is coming off one of the best shooting games it's had all season, there’s room to exploit that.

Additionally, Hayes sat out of practice Wednesday before the game. It would be a big blow if he couldn’t play.

Iowa wins if …

rebounding is at least close to even, the offense is efficient and defense can reasonably contain Ethan Happ. The Hawkeyes have probably the second tallest task of the year (at Purdue the other) going into Kohl Center, and Wisconsin’s recent struggles have almost no bearing on that. It’s going to take a Maryland-like performance for a second straight game.

Wisconsin wins if …

Happ stays out of foul trouble, the Badgers control the glass and don’t turn it over to much. The Badgers were a top 10 team a few weeks ago because they came through in tight games thanks to the aforementioned strengths. If Iowa turns it over and can’t find those open shots that fell at Maryland, the Hawkeyes’ win streak stops.

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

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