It's basketball hate week, and RossWB from Black Heart Gold Pants is here to talk about this season's version of the Iowa Hawkeyes ahead of tomorrow night's Cy-Hawk game. Ross discusses how the Hawks differ from last year's NCAA Tournament squad and also dishes on what he would give up for Iowa football to have won against Michigan State in Saturday's Big Ten Championship game.
Let's get to it!
WRNL: With now-graduated Aaron White, Josh Oglesby and Gabe Olaseni gone from the Hawkeyes' regular rotation, who has stepped up to fill some of their production so far this year?
Ross: It's been a team effort overall, with all of Iowa's returning starters increasing their production this year, but two of the biggest improvements have come from Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok. Uthoff's gone from 12.4 ppg to 18.2 ppg this year (and shooting better across the board), while Jok has gone from 7.0 ppg to 12.9 ppg (his increase has come via increased volume rather than increased efficiency). Iowa's also got increased production from sophomore Dom Uhl (8.1 ppg), but replacing the scoring from White, Oglesby, and Olaseni has been relatively easy. Replacing their rebounding, defense, and overall impact on Iowa's style of play has been far more challenging. Iowa's rebounding has been a struggled at times this year (especially on the offensive glass), although it's been improving lately. Iowa's also struggled to get to the line as much without foul magnets like White and Olaseni lurking near the hoop. That's resulted in a more perimeter-oriented Iowa team, which has been (mostly) effective this year, but is a bit of a change from what we've seen in recent years.
WRNL: Which one Iowa player is the most improved on this year's roster?
Ross: I'd say Dom Uhl, although his improvement has been a little bit inconsistent at times (which has been reflected in his playing time). Woodbury, Clemmons, and Gesell have all improved, but their improvements have been a bit more incremental. Jok's made a leap forward and been much more productive for Iowa this year, but as noted above, a lot of his improved production is tied to the increased number of touches he's getting. Uthoff has improved in several areas and has improved his efficiency from the field (and was particularly red-hot against Western Illinois on Monday night), but he's also vanished a bit in the offense at times and, frankly, is kind of a boring answer for this question.
Uhl has been emerging as Iowa's go-to sixth man and of late he's been providing a very nice spark off the bench -- over the last three games, he's averaged 11.7 ppg on 55% shooting (43% 3-point shooting) and 6.3 rpg in 20 minutes per night. Iowa isn't likely to get that sort of production out of him the rest of the season (there are no more games against UMKC, alas), but if he can average 7-8 ppg and 4-5 rpg or so, that would be a nice boost for Iowa. He needs to perform against better competition -- he was a noted no-show against Wichita State and Notre Dame in Orlando two weeks ago and his recent surge has come against UMKC and Western Illinois, so caveats abound -- but he's going to keep getting opportunities because Iowa needs someone from the bench to emerge as a viable option to take some of the pressure off thestarters.
WRNL: The only losses for the Hawks have come against a couple solid squads in Dayton and Notre Dame. What did Iowa struggle with - or what did the other teams do well - that contributed to those outcomes? Alternatively, what's been the recipe for success in the Hawks' seven victories?
Ross: Honestly, in both of those losses, the biggest problem for Iowa was an offensive dry spell in which they dug themselves a big hole because they weren't able to get buckets to keep pace with their opponent. They got too far behind and while they made comebacks late in both games, they weren't able to finish off either comeback with a win. While the offense had issues in those games, the defense also had some problems, especially defending 2-point attempts -- both Dayton and Notre Dame made 57% of their 2-point shots and had pretty efficient offensive attacks (Dayton averaged 1.12 points per possession, while Notre Dame averaged 1.10 points per possession). That certainly makes me a bit nervous for a game against team with an offense as potent as Iowa State.
As far as the wins, I don't think it's too instructive to look at the cupcake portion of the schedule -- Iowa simply did what they were supposed to do against Coppin State, UMKC, Western Illinois, and Gardner-Webb. They have far more talent than those teams and they were able to exploit that advantage. Kudos to them for doing that and not vomiting on themselves against a weaker opponent -- several P5 teams this year haven't been able to do that -- but those wins don't provide much of a blueprint for beating Iowa State. Nor does the blowout win over Wichita State -- as satisfying as it was, it came against an injury-ravaged Shocker squad.
Against Marquette, everything was clicking for Iowa on both ends of the floor. Their offense shot 55% on 2s and 3s (making 12/22 from long range) and averaged 1.20 points per possession, while holding Marquette to 0.82 points per possession, 7/30 shooting from 3-point range, and forcing 19 turnovers. Iowa completely flustered Marquette on both ends of the court -- on defense they were either able to force Marquette into taking a lot of bad shots or they were able to get turnovers and on offense they used crisp ball movement to get open look after open look. If Iowa plays that well tomorrow night, they'll win -- but Iowa State isn't likely to be as accommodating as Marquette was in that game. Marquette's team is loaded with talented but inexperienced underclassmen and it showed in that game; Iowa State is loaded with talented and very experienced upperclassmen -- very different dynamic there.
Against Florida State last week, Iowa found a way to win even when they weren't playing particularly well. They were terrible from 3-point range (5/21) and gave up a lot of offensive rebounds (19), but fortunately Florida State was even worse from distance (5/23) and struggled to turn all those offensive boards into actual second chance points. Iowa was also able to get to the free throw line a lot (26 times) and make enough (19) to grind out a win in overtime. But unlike the Marquette game, if Iowa plays like that tomorrow night, they'll likely lose -- Iowa State will probably be able to punish poor play like that better than Florida State. I really think the game comes down to how well Iowa's offense plays -- Iowa has defended well this year, but against an offense like Iowa State's, I don't expect them to shut it down. Overall, Iowa's offense has played very well this year, even in their losses. They're going to need to be good on that side of the ball -- and they're going to need to avoid any prolonged scoring slumps. Do that and they'll have a shot to upset the Cyclones.
WRNL: If you're Fran McCaffery and you're game planning against the Cyclones, what's your strategy on both the offensive and defensive sides of the floor?
Ross: Defensively, I think the first thing Fran will look to do is slow down the tempo of the game a bit. Iowa's not a major slow-it-down team, but they are slower-paced than Iowa State and I think they'll try to avoid getting in a fast-paced, up-and-down game that likely favors ISU. Iowa's averaging around 71 possessions per game and the only time they've really deviated from that was against Coppin State (who is horrendous), Marquette and Western Illinois (two games in which Iowa's offensive performance was blazing), and Florida State (which went to overtime). Their possession totals in the Wichita State and Notre Dame games were in the low-to-mid 60s and while I doubt that they'll slow it down that much against Iowa State, I think it's important that they keep the game right around that 67-70 possession pace to maximize their ability to win. Beyond that, I look for them to make a really concerted effort to guard the three point line since torrid shooting from deep (12/27) was a big part of what sunk Iowa in this game last season.
Offensively, I look for them to try and establish Jok and Uthoff early and get them some confidence. Iowa is going to need big games from both guys and they're likely going to need both guys to shoot well from outside, so I look for Iowa to try and get them some looks from deep early. Outside shooting in general is going to be critical for Iowa -- as noted earlier, this is a more perimeter-oriented Iowa team than the last few. Jok and Uthoff figure to take most of the threes, but Clemmons, Uhl, Brady Ellingson, and even Mike Gesell will likely put up several as well.
WRNL: Pick one word to describe the looming Jameel McKay vs. Adam Woodbury matchup. Explain your selection.
Ross: "Dutch" as in the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in PREDATOR, not the charming folks from the low countries in Europe. McKay has been looking (and playing) like an (almost) unstoppable alien hunter-killer, so who better to turn to take him out than a noted Predator-slayer like "Dutch" Schaefer. And, look, if Woodbury needs to smear himself in mud and erect a punji pit in the paint to get the job done, well, then so be it.
WRNL: Speaking of everyone's favorite seven-footer, what will his encore to this be in his return trip to Ames?
WRNL: Georges Niang: great player, or greatest player? All kidding aside, do you hate Georges Niang, or are you amused by his Cy-Hawk rivalry shenanigans from the past few years? Fun fact: Iowa offered him while he was in high school... Things could have been way different had he decided to land in Iowa City.
Ross: I thought his shh-ing the Iowa fans in Carver last year was a pretty troll-tastic move, but then again, if an Iowa player did the same thing in Hilton, I'm sure I would have found it hilarious -- so, perspective and all that. I "hate" Niang, sure, but it's all just sports hate -- I "hate" him because he happens to suit up for one of Iowa's biggest rivals (and play annoyingly well against Iowa in games). I don't really have anything against him beyond that. It's fun to imagine what an Iowa team with Niang would have looked like, though -- he would have been a huge get for Fran and certainly would have improved Iowa's teams over the last few years. I think his game would have meshed pretty well with Aaron White's game and they would have been a pretty lethal combination down low and around the bucket. Maybe in some alternate reality, that's exactly what happened...
WRNL: Would you exchange losing every basketball game all year for a Michigan State fumble and Iowa recovery on the 1-yard line on the final drive in Saturday's Big Ten Championship game?
Ross: Honestly? Yes. I like the basketball team a lot and am excited to see what they can do this season (particularly in a Big Ten that so far doesn't look quite as foreboding as it did before the season tipped off), but I would trade one year of hoops misery for a chance at football immortality. It's not just losing a shot at a Big Ten championship -- I assume Iowa will have more bites at that particular apple over the years -- but everything else. 13-0? A spot in the College Football Playoff? Accomplishments like that are exceptionally rare, so there's not much I wouldn't sacrifice, sports-wise, to attain them. All that said, the Rose Bowl is one heck of a consolation prize, so if Iowa football ends up going 12-1 with a trip to the Rose Bowl and Iowa hoops has another solid year and makes the NCAA Tournament again... well, that's an Iowa sports year that I'll look back on very fondly.
WRNL: The Hawks haven't won in Hilton Coliseum since their 54-53 victory in the NIT back in 2003 (Wow. Mid 50s? Barf.)... Is this the year it finally happens, or will it be more of the usual for the men's basketball version of the Cy-Hawk rivalry in Ames? Let's hear your prediction.
Ross: Yeah, I don't exactly think the final score of this game is going to be in the 50s. I certainly hope that this will be the year that Iowa is able to break their Hilton hex -- I hope that every other year when Iowa makes this trek to Ames. And every other year for the last 12 years, I've been disappointed. Iowa came achingly close to winning in Ames two years ago -- the memory of Gesell's missed free throws still stings -- but wasn't able to seal the deal. It would be sweet payback for Iowa to finish the job this year, especially with Gesell making some key plays late, but... no. I'm not predicting an Iowa win on Thursday night. I don't think it will be as disastrous as last year's game in Iowa City was (from an Iowa perspective), but unless Iowa can get Iowa State's starters into significant foul trouble and/or be red-hot from three-point range themselves (which has happened a few times this year), I think the Cyclones have too much firepower. I'll predict Niang and Morris to make several big buckets for Iowa State late and and Iowa State win, 78-72.
WRNL: BONUS QUESTION - NCAA rules notwithstanding, why haven't you patented and started selling "Jok Straps" yet? I'd totally buy one.
Ross: As much as we love puns, we're bloggers, which means we also love comfort. And no one has ever found a jock strap comfortable.
Thanks to Ross for taking the time to answer our questions. You can check out Kevin's answers to Ross' questions over on BHGP by clicking here. Also, you can follow Ross on the Twitter machine at @RossWB and Black Heart Gold Pants at the easy-to-remember @BHGP.