Points in Transition: Iowa vs. Penn State preview

Hawkeyes close out regular season with young Nittany Lions team

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One more regular-season game to go, and suddenly Coach Fran McCaffery’s group is getting NCAA Tournament buzz again. While an NIT berth is a much firmer possibility than it was even a week ago, three straight wins have the Iowa men’s basketball team thinking big again. A not-so-sneakily difficult Penn State game stands in the way of a four-game win streak to end the regular season.

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 Penn State:

Key player

Iowa: Peter Jok, guard — When Points in Transition started, we said Jok would be removed from consideration for Key Player because he’d be it every game if he wasn’t. Well, it’s Senior Day so it would be kind of foolish to leave him out now. Whether you believe him an NBA player or not or whether or not you believe he’s one of the two or three best players in the Big Ten, one thing cannot be denied: the young man is gifted. The last two seasons have been special — 1,086 points in 61 games — and he’s got one more regular-season game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to put an exclamation on them. He also didn’t have a great game at Wisconsin, so you know he’ll want to finish the regular season on a high note.

Penn State: Tony Carr, guard — Even if Penn State doesn’t have the highest-powered offense (hold that thought), Carr is the driving force behind what the Nittany Lions are able to do. His assist rate is solid at 26.1, putting him well inside the top 200 individual players in the country. He also gets some effective use out of driving to the hoop and drawing fouls. He’ll give Jordan Bohannon and Christian Williams a test.

Strengths

Iowa: It’s kind of hard to believe, given how things were at the start of this year, but Iowa’s defense has a definite strength at the moment. Yes, there are still breakdowns. Wisconsin had open shooters on multiple occasions Thursday night. But you can’t fake forcing a team into 0.838 points per possession.

The Hawkeyes weren’t much better offensively, finishing at 0.894, but against a top-15 Adjusted Defense (KenPom.com), it’s not surprising to come in below average in offensive efficiency.

The difference is that in another part of the season, Iowa probably would not have been able to get the stops necessary to keep the game within range. McCaffery said as much after the game Thursday, that even when they went on a pair of scoring droughts, the Hawkeyes never let the Badgers farther out than seven points.

And while Jordan Bohannon’s 3-pointer was the game-winner, the Hawkeyes don’t win without those sterling defensive possessions in the press in the last 1:46. Iowa scored the final seven points thanks in large part to forcing turnovers in the back court.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions have struggled at multiple points this season, and currently are in the midst of a four-game losing streak that includes an overtime loss at home to Purdue and a one-point loss to Ohio State at home. That said, Penn State’s defense continues to be its calling card.

Penn State plays primarily in man and has gotten a lot out of forcing turnovers and protecting the rim — particularly in conference play. The Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten (per KenPom.com) in turnover percentage at 20.3 and second in block percentage at 13.3. They also sit fifth in opponent offensive rebound percentage at 30.2 and fifth in Adjusted Defense at 1.016 points per possession. With a roster nearly as young as Iowa’s that their early strength is defense is a good sign for their future.

Weaknesses

Iowa: As high-quality as the Hawkeyes offense has been so often this season — and even in the three-game win streak — there’s been a sloppiness to the offense that has undermined them.

Iowa was getting good looks at the basket Thursday night in Kohl Center, and had run pretty well in transition. However, 19 turnovers hindered much of what the Hawkeyes were trying to do, particularly in the second half. At 13.2 turnovers forced per game — tied for fourth in the Big Ten, behind Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska — those 19 aren’t all because Wisconsin plays good defense.

It’s OK to win despite something like that, and shows resiliency in being able to do so. But turnovers in must-win postseason games can be mountains to climb.

Penn State: Scoring offense and defense is a largely overrated stat because there’s no clear correlation between those numbers and wins and losses. Yes, most often when you score more you win. But Indiana currently sits second in the Big Ten in scoring offense at 79.9, and the Hoosiers have lost eight of their last 10.

That said, the Nittany Lions have not only struggled to score (72 points per game), but they’ve struggled to do so efficiently throughout the year and in Big Ten play. Based on conference stats, Penn State ranks 13th in Adjusted Offense at 0.965 points per possession, and the Nittany Lions rank 168th nationally for the entire season at 1.048 ppp.

Further, effective field goal percentage has been an area of struggle, too. Penn State ranks 299th overall and 13th in the Big Ten in that category, according to KenPom. A young team with a new(ish) offense and guys growing into roles is a factor, but Penn State will not overwhelm anyone just yet.

Iowa wins if …

the Hawkeyes can continue their run of forcing turnovers and being in better position defensively, while also taking care of the ball and continuing to do what they’re best at offensively. Jok likely will have a lot to do with the outcome Sunday, and that’s fine, but Iowa should have the freedom to let him do his thing if they show up as they have recently.

Penn State wins if …

Iowa turns the ball over at another high rate and the Nittany Lions shoot like they did in wins against Illinois and Maryland. The Hawkeyes have shown they can struggle from the field at random times, and if that happens, Penn State has to pounce to have a chance to steal a win on the road.

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

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