Iowa’s non-conference schedule has been panned for its lack of strength (325th of 351 as of Monday), but this week sets off a run of four games that very much are strong — starting with Tuesday at Virginia Tech. The Hokies lead the nation in scoring and the Hawkeyes struggle on defense. It could be a track meet in Blacksburg, Va.
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 Virginia Tech:
Player to Watch
Iowa: Jack Nunge, forward — Coach Fran McCaffery said Monday it’s not for sure whether or not Ahmad Wagner and Nicholas Baer will be back from shoulder and finger injuries, respectively, but that he thinks they’ll go and that Baer will come off the bench. That means Nunge has a solid chance for a second straight start. Even if that’s not the case, he’s the player to watch Tuesday because this is the first time he’s coming off a rough outing individually, and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds — especially against a fast, slashing team in the Hokies.
Virginia Tech: Justin Bibbs, guard — Bibbs is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound guard who leads his team at 21.3 points per game, is shooting 66.7 percent overall and 50 percent from 3-point range. He has the 33rd best offensive rating (personal offensive efficiency) in the country, according to KenPom.com. Basically, he’s a souped-up muscle car designed to destroy defenses. The only guy who can match his athleticism on the perimeter defensively is Wagner, and while it’s expected he’ll play, it’s not yet certain.
Iowa: It’s been up and down, of course, but when Iowa has been at its best — even in the losses — transition and 3-point shooting was an offense-generator. The Hawkeyes rank 17th in the nation in effective field goal percentage (58.8 percent) and 47th in offensive efficiency at 1.117 points per possession. When Iowa gets good shots, they’re generally going in.
What’s been a big improvement offensively to start this season is how Iowa has been getting to the free throw line. The Hawkeyes’ free throw rate through seven games is 54.5 percent, which ranks fifth in the nation, per KenPom. That means for every 100 shots from the field, Iowa is getting about 54 or 55 free throws. That’s substantially better than 2016-17’s 34.9 percent. Cashing in on that isn’t exactly the same story (see below), but getting there is a good start.
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Finding ways to score has rarely been an issue for Iowa, and it’s got to be the same way Tuesday.
Virginia Tech: By almost every measure, the Hokies have opened the season as one of the best offensive teams in the country. While they haven’t played a stout field of competition — the highest-ranked team was Washington, at 141 on KenPom, a 103-79 win — and did lose a grind-it-out game to Saint Louis, you can’t really fake the scoring they’ve done.
Virginia Tech sits 18th in points per possession (1.146), seventh in possession length (13.9 seconds), seventh in free throw rate (53.1 percent), third in 2-point field goal percentage (63.6 percent) and leads the nation in effective field goal percentage (67.7 percent), 3-point shooting (49.6 percent) and scoring (102 points per game). That’s … a lot.
What’s more, McCaffery called the Hokies “as good of a transition team I’ve seen in a long time in terms of anybody can take it, anybody can shoot it, anybody can finish it.” Five guys score in double figures, and their tempo is going to be a lot for Iowa to handle. Given Iowa has struggled on defense, and the Hawkeyes are heading into the house of a team that excels in that area, the over/under for this game probably should hover around 200.
Iowa: The Caymans were … rough. Even if it happened on a several occasions in all three games, it felt like the Hawkeyes couldn’t get more than one defensive stop in a row. Louisiana (94th on KenPom at 1.072 ppp) and South Dakota State (75th at 1.085 ppp) each put 80 on an Iowa defense that struggled in man and zone, rotating, helping the helper and closing out.
Part of what’s hurt Iowa’s defensive possessions is simply how long they’ve been. Hawkeyes opponents’ average possession length is 18.4 seconds, which is 335th of 351 teams. Iowa has to guard teams for longer than most everyone else, and all the depth in the world doesn’t matter when the five guys on the floor get tired mid-possession.
Clearing out on the boards and holding teams to one-and-done possessions was a struggle in the last three games. That has to change for defense to progress and a running style to be sustainable.
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Virginia Tech: This probably lies more in what can’t really be known yet about the Hokies. Like the Hawkeyes, the strength of schedule so far has left much to be desired, so there’s a decent chance their offensive numbers are slightly inflated.
Virginia Tech excels when the pace is up and, like everyone else, shots are falling while running. The lone loss this year coincided with the worst shooting night from the field and from 3-point range. The Hokies also only shot 45.5 percent from 2-point range, meaning they didn’t collect as often in transition as they have. The first half in that loss was easily their worst this season, and couldn’t be overcome.
When things don’t work in transition, the rest of Virginia Tech’s offense gets a little harder. The Hokies are in the mid-100s on KenPom in all but two defensive categories, so there should be room for the Hawkeyes to have success given they operate much in the same way.
Iowa wins if …
the Hawkeyes can force the Hokies into bad shots. Iowa won’t be able to slow Virginia Tech because it wants to run, too, but being active in passing lanes and cutting off dribble penetration is going to have to work at least the majority of time for a win to be in the cards in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech wins if …
the Hokies establish a transition game early and create outside shots from it. Iowa hasn’t been connected recently on defense, so ball movement at a high pace could get Virginia Tech off and running and out far enough that Iowa won’t be able to catch up.
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