As everyone heads home for the holidays, the Iowa men’s basketball team heads to southeast South Dakota. The Hawkeyes get Colorado at the Sanford Pentagon at 8 p.m. Friday, a nod to Iowa fans in that region who don’t often get a chance to see their favorite team up close, and will get a shot at a Power 5 victory with Big Ten play resuming soon.
For select non-conference games, 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 Colorado:
Player to Watch
Iowa: Luka Garza, forward — The arc of his season has risen and fallen with the level of competition the Hawkeyes have faced. Maybe by coincidence, maybe not, but Garza has had his best games against teams that are either undersized or under-talented. He struggled in both Big Ten matchups so far, and against Iowa State and Virginia Tech. But he’s looked more composed and more consistent. How he plays against a Power 5 team in Colorado will give at least some indication of whether or not there’s a correlation.
Colorado: McKinley Wright, guard — The freshman is a do-everything kind of guard who plays a little bigger than he is. Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery compared him Tuesday to Allen Iverson, which is no small comparison, given he coached against Iverson. Wright rebounds well, has the 87th-best assist rate out of 2,168 players nationally, shoots effectively and defends well individually without fouling. He’s been a triple-double threat a few times and plays with speed and craftiness. McCaffery’s praise was effusive, saying “he’s one of the better players we’ve gone against this year, in film.”
Iowa: Very quietly, the Hawkeyes have gotten better and better on defense over the last three-plus games. In three wins, and even against Iowa State (for most of the game, at least), Iowa’s defense has been consistent.
Even if it’s not consistently great, just being consistent is a feat. Yes, that includes games against Southern and Southern Utah, which do not offer a tremendous threat offensively, but holding those two teams and Drake to 60, 64 and 64 points is not nothing, no matter what their status. That the Hawkeyes were so effective in zone against a Drake team that relies so heavily on the 3-point shot was the biggest eyebrow raiser. Typically defending a team like that requires man-to-man, but what Iowa did in its defensive rotations and with its communication made the zone work.
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Iowa crept into the top 100 nationally on KenPom in adjusted defense at 1.003 points per possession, which still isn’t phenomenal, but is better than at any point last year. Defense still isn’t THE strength of the team, but that it’s improving steadily is worth noting. Whether or not that continues Friday and on into Big Ten play is the real question.
Colorado: The Buffaloes hover around average in just about every statistical category, which makes their being ranked 119th on KenPom.com appropriate. But the couple things they do really well come on defense.
Colorado averages 6-foot-5 across the board, but despite a size disadvantage in many situations, the Buffaloes use quickness and some mixing of defensive sets. Tad Boyle’s crew keeps opponents off the offensive glass with effectiveness in particular, ranking 31st in the nation in opponents’ offensive rebound percentage (24.3 percent). They also rank 54th defensively in 2-point field goal percentage, suggesting help defense and interior defending has been solid.
Boyle has mixed up his starters and Colorado has been fine offensively regardless of which lineup is on the floor. Most teams have one lineup they run with a high percentage of the time, but Colorado’s most-used lineup is only on the floor 8.4 percent of the time. Mixing up looks is something Iowa does, too, so preparing for that can be more difficult.
Iowa: It’s interesting, the timing of certain perspectives from Fran McCaffery. Earlier this season, he said after some of the Hawkeyes’ struggles that Iowa still was young, and that adding two freshmen to the mix didn’t help in terms of being connected on both ends. This week, after the Southern Utah win, he reminded everyone that the Hawkeyes may be young in age, but those young guys have played a lot in the last year and a half.
Whatever the level of experience or connectivity, some of the issues they’ve had all season remain — even if they’ve been much lesser in the last three games.
Turnovers have been fewer and farther between, but the kinds of turnovers are the same: guys pressing or trying a little too hard, making hasty or sometimes downright mystifying decisions. Against teams like Southern and Southern Utah, plays that could’ve been turnovers and weren’t — those “almost” plays — likely would’ve been against Big Ten teams.
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Colorado: As stated above, the Buffs aren’t really great at anything, and they aren’t really terrible at much either. If there’s a glaring weakness about this team on paper it’s that the only thing that jumps out at you is McKinley Wright’s stat sheet.
They sit 131st in Adjusted Offense (1.055 points per possession), 117th in Adjusted Defense (1.012 ppp), 142nd in effective field goal percentage (51.8 percent), 117th in offensive rebound percentage (31.2 percent), and 230th in turnover percentage (20.2 percent). It’s all just sort of … there.
Two areas in which the Buffaloes haven’t seen hardly any success, though, is in forcing turnovers. Colorado ranks 321st in opponent turnover percentage (16 percent) and 328th in steal percentage (6.4 percent). Iowa shouldn’t face a ton of ball pressure when working its offense, which could be big trouble if the Hawkeyes can make the motion offense click.
Iowa wins if …
Offense takes care of the ball as it has in the last few games, the rebounding stays as it has and the communication remains at a high level on defense. The Hawkeyes are better on paper than the Buffaloes, but can’t dip in their execution.
Colorado wins if …
Iowa gives the ball up with unforced turnovers, the Hawkeyes aren’t hitting and Wright leads the Buffaloes offense with efficiency. Colorado getting comfortable on offense and shots in rhythm could put Iowa in a bad spot.
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