When Northwestern fans look back at last season, there are many frustrating losses that stand out. And while the home collapses to Purdue and Illinois are the two most will focus on, to my mind the worst loss during conference play came at Carver-Hawkeye against Iowa. It didn't feature last-second heartbreak, but on paper it was a game NU had to have. After a slow start to Big Ten play, the 'Cats had won 4 of 5 in the league and were nearly back on the bubble, but they played poorly against the Hawkeyes and suffered a loss from which they would never fully recover. A win in that game may not have been the difference between the NCAAs and NIT, but it would have made a huge difference.
Tonight, NU returns to Iowa City, and they find themselves in a similar position to last year. The 'Cats have won two in a row and are nearly back on the bubble, but a loss tonight would severely damage their at-large chances. And like last year, Iowa is in 10th place in the Big Ten and struggling. So we'll see if Northwestern can avenge last season's loss and build momentum towards their first ever NCAA tournament appearance. Tip-off is at 7:30 central on the Big Ten Network, with Tom Werme (who?) and Kenyon Murray on the call.
Iowa is 8-16 overall, and 2-9 in the Big Ten. Since losing their first two games of the season in embarrassing fashion (home defeats to Texas-San Antonio and Duquense during which they scored a total of 100 points), they've been pretty predictable, beating the bad teams on their schedule and losing to the good ones. The Hawkeyes have no bad losses since their first two, and have managed wins over fellow Big Ten bottom feeders Indiana and Penn State. They come into tonight on a 4 game losing streak, most recently falling by 10 at Ohio State.
During Big Ten play, Iowa has been led by the play of sophomore forward Aaron Fuller. Despite being just 6'6", 210 pounds, Fuller leads the Big Ten in offensive rebounding at 3.8 per game, and has led the Hawkeyes in scoring during conference play at 11 points a night. His lack of size has kept him from shooting too high a percentage inside (43% in conference play), but he is a very tough player and could cause problems on the glass. The other two big men for Iowa are Jarryd Cole and Brennan Cougil. Cole is a 6'7" bruiser who rebounds well and shoots a high percentage in limited attempts, while the 6'9" Cougill (who might be the only player in the Big Ten sporting a beer belly) takes most of his shots from 3-point range and shoots a decent percentage.
In the backcourt, keep your eye on sophomore Matt Gatens. He almost never comes out of the game, and has recently been fighting through an ankle injury. During Big Ten play, he has struggled with his shot, at just 32% overall and 28% from 3-point range. Despite his struggles, Gatens is still the go-to guy for Iowa and their floor leader. The other two starting guards are freshmen, in Cully Payne and Eric May. Payne is the point guard and has had a tough time during Big Ten play, leading the conference in turnovers per game. he also hasn't shot the ball well, at just 33% from the field, 23% from three, and 57% from the line. May is a more promising prospect; a deceptively good athlete, he has gotten over 5 rebounds per game and led the team in blocked shots, and has shot the three pretty well at 32%.
Off the bench, expect to see Iowa's only senior, Devan Bawinkel. This guy takes the term 3-point specialist to previously unseen levels, as he's attempted 68 field goals this season and all 68 have been threes. He's made 25 of them for a respectable 37%, but he doesn't bring anything else to the table; BHGP recently described him as alternating between "a one-trick pony and a zero-trick pony", which pretty much nails it. We should also see an appearance from the coach's son, John Lickliter. Li'l John, as he is affectionately known, is a walk-on who is only playing because starting guard Anthony Tucker has been suspended indefinitely for public drunkenness. He also looks the part of your stereotypical walk-on (short slow white guy), and hasn't played many minutes
As a team, Iowa's biggest problem all season has been turnovers, as they are the worst in the Big Ten in that category. They have really struggled against full court pressure, so look for NU to extend their defense at times in this game. When they do manage to set up their halfcourt offense, Iowa takes nearly half their field goal attempts from 3-point range. They've hit 32% of those attempts, which certainly isn't great, but they are capable of getting hot from outside. In last year's game at Carver-Hawkeye, an absurd 75% of their shots were from three, many coming against the 1-3-1 zone. While the zone should force a lot of turnovers, it also leaves Northwestern vulnerable to the 3-point shot and to Fuller and Cole on the offensive glass, and since Iowa doesn't exactly have a bunch of great athletes who can create off the dribble, I'd say man to man defense is the best bet in this game for Bill Carmody. He's been going to the 1-3-1 less and less recently, so hopefully it only makes a token appearance tonight.
On defense, the biggest weakness for Iowa has been their interior defense, as they rank near the bottom nationally in 2-point field goal defense and blocked shots. They also haven't forced many turnovers, but they do a good job with defensive rebounding (in part because they don't try to run on offense). I'd like to see the 'Cats try to exploit that by attacking the basket, especially with John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic, who will both have a size advantage. An astute commenter during the Indiana game pointed out that Mirkovic has been a completely different player at home than on the road, which has certainly been true. Hopefully he puts that behind him tonight and has a big game.
Even though on paper this should be an easy win for Northwestern, I'm having trouble seeing that happening. Iowa is still playing hard despite their poor record, and at home they have made things interesting against Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois. Northwestern should be able to get good looks on offense, but if the 3-point shots aren't falling then it could be a tough night. The bookies don't seem to think it will be easy either, as NU is just a 3 point favorite. I'd say that's a couple points too low, but not too far off.
Northwestern 55, Iowa 50
I'm fully expecting an ugly, grind it out game where every possession seems critical. It may be a bit painful at times, but this team has shown me enough heart this season that I think they'll pull it out in the end. See everyone tonight for the game thread.