The Wahoos will play one last game at John Paul Jones Arena tonight when the Hawkeyes of Iowa come to town. Iowa finished 9-9 in Big Ten play and is now 23-12 on the season, but missed the Big Dance and earned a three-seed in the NIT. After home wins against Indiana State and Stony Brook, Iowa will take on Virginia for the right to play at Madison Square Garden in the NIT's Final Four.
The problem? Most of us probably haven't seen much Iowa basketball, at least in comparison to our ACC foes. Thankfully, the good folks at Black Heart Gold Pants have got us covered. I also answered some of their questions on Virginia, which you can find here.
Streaking the Lawn: Like Virginia, the Hawkeyes had NCAA tourney hopes during the final weeks of the season, but ended up a game or two short. How did this jive with preseason expectations, and what is the mood of the fanbase about this NIT run? I'd imagine fans are pretty happy with coach McCaffery, who took Iowa from 11 wins to 23 (but hopefully no more) in 2 years.
Black Heart Gold Pants: You're absolutely right that the fanbase is pretty happy with the work McCaffery has done at Iowa in his first three years. Before he turned things around, basketball was effectively dead at Iowa -- or at least on life support, with a priest hovering nearby, ready to deliver last rites. Attendance was cratering, players were transferring at an alarming rate (Iowa lost its leading scorer 3-4 years in a row), and the losses were piling up year after year. McCaffery has completely turned that around, going from 11 wins his first year, to an above .500 record (and NIT appearance) in his second year, to this year, a 23-win (and counting season) with Iowa a game away from the NIT semifinals. The fans have returned en masse -- Iowa posted sellout crowds of 15,000+ in both of their NIT games so far, which is just remarkable.
I think as fans we all get caught up a bit at the end of the season in hoping that Iowa could grab one of the last few at-large berths to the NCAA Tournament and ended Iowa's drought in that event (no appearances since 05-06), but the NIT isn't a bad consolation prize, especially since they've been able to make a nice run in the event. Again, basketball was functionally dead at Iowa not too long ago, so we're still pretty satisfied with any positive signs at this point. I think next year (and beyond) the expectations will be more closely tied to getting back in the NCAA Tournament, but for now an NIT run is more than acceptable.
STL: It looks like Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White are Iowa's big guns. What could we expect from these two? And who else should Wahoo fans be watching out for?
BHGP: Marble has definitely been the straw that's stirred Iowa's drink, especially in the NIT, where he's averaging 26 ppg. But he's been doing this since before the NIT as well -- Iowa's 9-3 in their last 12 games and he's gone for 18+ ppg in nine of those games. He spent much of the season as Iowa's starting two-guard, but he's been serving as the point guard for the last few weeks, thanks to a foot injury to Mike Gesell (Iowa's regular starting PG) and a late-season slump for Anthony Clemmons (Iowa's other freshman PG). He played that position a lot last year, though, so he has some comfort there, which is certainly backed up by his numbers. The key to defending him is to deny his drives to the bucket, because he's a pretty streaky jump shooter.
White is a garbageman par excellence. He's Iowa's leading rebounder despite being a relatively scrawny 6-8, 218 -- what he lacks in brawn, he makes up for with his immense wingspan and incredible rebounding instincts. He's just one of those players who seems to know where the ball is going to be when it comes off the rim. He's also Iowa's second-leading scorer, despite having an inconsistent jump shot. 38% of his points have come off free throws; he gets to the line a lot (about 7 times per game, on average) and I would estimate that another 35-40% of his offense seems to come off putback dunks or alley-oops -- he's great at finishing those off.
Other than Marble and White, the two Iowa guys to watch on offense are probably Melsahn Basabe and Mike Gesell. Basabe is a forward and tends to rotate between the 4 and the 5 spot, depending on the line-up on the court at a given time. He has a pretty solid jump shot as well a slightly more polished post game than White. He's also a pretty tenacious rebounder and typically brings good energy on defense. Gesell has alternated between the PG and SG spots for Iowa this year and when he's on he gives Iowa a good threat from outside (something that can be sadly lacking otherwise, especially if fellow G Josh Oglesby isn't hitting from deep) and is another threat to score 9-10 points for the Hawkeyes.
STL: A couple other similarities exist between our teams. Our feeble OOC schedules have us playing this game instead of prepping for the Sweet 16. Also, neither can win on the road (Iowa has two road wins, at Northwestern and PSU. And you guys lost to the Hokies?). We are with you here, WHY IS IT SO HARD!?
BHGP: Yeah, I noticed that you also played a pretty cupcake-heavy non-conference schedule (328th, per KenPom, meaning your slate was even worse than our also-terrible 323rd-ranked schedule!). The RPI really didn't like those schedules, which seems to be why the Selection Committee turned up their collective nose at both of our squads. Alas. Hopefully our coaches have learned their lesson and will schedule more challenging opponents next year. Or maybe they can just game the RPI system like the MWC did. Anyway...
Road games have been a real problem for Iowa this year, though, which definitely has me worried about this one. Things have gotten better since the beginning of the year, when Iowa imploded in Blacksburg (although the Hokies weren't quite the laughingstock then that they became later in the year; I'm pretty sure they lost one of their best players to injury after that game), but even in February Iowa was barely escaping Penn State by the skin of their teeth (although, to be fair, this is a feat that Michigan wasn't able to accomplish, so...) and losing to Nebraska in Lincoln, so the road troubles didn't go away entirely. Most of the road losses were very close -- Iowa had leads late against Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska before turnovers, poor offensive execution, and a bit of bad luck sunk them in those games. They're playing better now than they were then, which gives me hope, but I'm not gonna lie: if it's a close game late with the 'Hoos, I'm going to be very, very nervous.
STL: The Hawkeyes are #19 on KenPom in defensive efficiency. What is Iowa all about on defense? (It doesn't look like you guys will press us...will you? We don't like that).
BHGP: The defensive turnaround for this team has been absolutely amazing to behold. A year ago, Iowa's defense was 180th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. That's... not so good. And if you saw Iowa's games with Indiana and Oregon last year, you would have been astonished to see that they were as high as 180th in defensive efficiency. But this year has been a complete 180 on that front and it's a very welcome sight. On defense Iowa plays a fair amount of man-to-man, but they're also very willing to slip into a zone look to confuse an opponent or slow them down. They've also gotten much better at closing out on the three-point line and contesting shots out there, which has been a key reason they rank 9th in the country in 3-point defense (29.1%).
As for what else has changed... aside from a little more buy-in on defense from returning starters like White, Basabe, and Marble, I think the biggest development has been the addition of guys like Gesell and Clemmons and (most importantly) Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni. Gesell and (especially) Clemmons have done a good job of harassing opposing backcourts this year, although they do tend to struggle with bigger, more physical guards. But Woodbury, a freshman, and Olaseni, a sophomore have helped out by providing a physical presence in the middle that Iowa had been lacking in recent years. They're both around 7-feet tall and their mere presence has altered a lot of shots and offensive decisions. Of late, Olaseni has been a real terror on the defensive end, bringing a lot of energy and shot-blocking to that end of the court.
And, yes, we do like to press teams if possible, especially with some second-unit guys like Olaseni, Clemmons, and Eric May, who have proven to be very effective at causing havoc in the press. But Iowa also won't press the entire game.
STL: What scares you most about this game? And what makes you most optimistic about Iowa's chances of advancing to MSG?
BHGP: Honestly, the thing that makes me most nervous about this game is the fact that it's a road game against a good team. If this was on a neutral court or in Iowa City, I would feel much better because Iowa has tended to play much better in those environments than they have on the road, even against very good competition (Iowa has three losses by a combined ten points this year to Indiana and Michigan State at home or on neutral courts). But Virginia looks like a very solid team, especially at home, where you've won 19 straight and beat the likes of Duke and North Carolina. If Iowa plays like they did on the road against Nebraska or Penn State, their odds of winning will be very, very slim. They're going to need to play perhaps their best road game of the season to win this game and until I actually see them do that, I'm going to be nervous.
That said, I do think Iowa can win this game for a few reasons. One, they're playing about as well as they have all season the last few games (other than a complete no-show second half against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament), which is a good trend. Two, I think they match up pretty well with Virginia. This match-up seems a bit similar to Iowa's games with Wisconsin and Iowa's done very well against the Badgers in recent years (3-1). If Iowa can get the pace of the game in their favor and harass Virginia into some turnovers, I think they'll have an excellent opportunity to win this game.
STL: Most importantly, it's prediction time. Let's hear it.
BHGP: I'm drinking the kool-aid. I think Iowa overcomes their road woes this year on the back of another strong Roy Devyn Marble performance. Iowa 66, Virginia 58