By Patrick Vint on December 15, 2018 at 11:19 am
Big Four, the final time
Big Four Classic


DATE: December 15, 2018
TIME: 6:00 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
RADIO: Learfield Sports
STREAMING:  Fox Sports Go/BTN2Go
LINE: Iowa -10.5
KENPOM: Iowa -11 (Iowa 86% win probability)

I suppose we should start with a question: Just what the hell happened to UNI?

It was just five short years ago that the Panthers were college basketball's little engine that always could.  The 2014-15 edition went 31-4 with a Big Four win over Iowa, a home win over ascending Wichita State, a Missouri Valley regular season and tournament championship and a Kenpom top 10 rating.  That team shot at a 56 percent effective rate, was tenth nationally in three-point shooting, murdered the defensive glass, and barely fouled anyone.  Five years before, they did just about the same thing.  And through the remainder of Ben Jacobsen's first decade at the helm, UNI always seemed to be posting those 22-10 seasons that put them directly on the NCAA bubble.  The strategy was fairly simple: Don't foul, don't turn the ball over, don't even bother with offensive rebounds, make the other side work for 25-35 seconds on every possession, and rely on Ben Jacobsen's voluminous playbook and a bunch of shooters to simply out-efficiency opponents through shooting percentage.  They were a threat for everyone they played, every year, no matter what.

Two years after that last great squad, UNI was sort of a mess.  Jacobsen's style was still dependent on shooting, but the Panthers were suddenly terrible at shooting.  They were especially bad from the perimeter, which destroyed UNI's usual spacing.  A 23-point loss to Iowa at the Big Four set off a seven-game losing streak, and before UNI knew it, the season was lost.  Last season wasn't much better; the Panthers shot at a tepid 48 percent effective field goal rate, so while they did almost everything else exactly the way Jacobsen wants it -- they were fourth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, 17th in opposing free throw rate, solid in turnover rate -- they mostly got out-shot.  Final result: A 30-32 record over the last two years.

Not much has changed in 2018-19; in fact, things might be slipping away from Jacobsen already.  UNI has four wins this season, but two came against non-Division I programs (Bemidji and the University of Dubuque, which UNI beat by just eight points last week).  Another win, a one-point squeaker against Old Dominion at an invitational tournament, was almost immediately nullified when they ran into the same Old Dominion squad four days later and lost by seven. 

The telltale sign that things aren't what Jacobsen expects: UNI is playing fast-ish.  The Panthers have been in the slowest third of the country in tempo in every season under Jacobsen but one.  It's maybe the most crucial aspect to their strategy, limiting the number of possessions so that a more athletic opponent can't simply make up a shooting deficiency through transition baskets.  When they let it go in 2013-14, UNI went 16-15 despite having Wes Washpun, Jeremy Morgan and Matt Bohannon in the backcourt and Seth Tuttle on the block.  It's crucial.  So when you look at UNI's KenPom page and see that they're averaging 69 possessions per game (nice) and routinely breaking 70 possessions per game, you can see something is clearly off.

That's not the only thing that's off about UNI this season:

  • UNI is shooting at a horrendous 45.5% effective rate from the field, 301st nationally;
  • They are under 30% from three, and well under 50% from inside the arc;
  • Their free throws allowed rate, 37.4%, is among the nation's worst, and the worst for a UNI team this millennium;
  • They are the first team on the Hawkeyes' schedule this season to give up more steals per possession than Iowa;

So what happened to UNI?  The shot clock reduction certainly didn't help, as it ran directly contrary to the Panthers' minimum-possession principle.  But, honestly, it's personnel.  UNI finally doesn't have the "four perimeter assassins and a guy name Koch" lineup that has worked so well in the past.

What they have instead is a potentially transcendent talent at point guard for a Missouri Valley team.  Freshman point guard A.J. Green (6'4", 175) drew four-star rankings and offers from everywhere (Virginia, Clemson, Iowa State, Minnesota, though curiously not Iowa) out of Cedar Falls High, but opted to stay home and play for UNI.  He is immediately the most important player on the court for the Panthers.  He plays more minutes than anyone else on the roster, and he has taken one out of every three shots for UNI this season.  UNI's heavy reliance on a freshman point guard has certainly contributed to that tempo uptick: Green turns it over on 21.5 percent of possessions, he has a lot of faith in a three-point shot that he only makes at a 30.6% rate, and his assist rate isn't what one would expect from a point guard so integral to the entire team's offense.

Outside of Green, UNI relies on forward Isaiah Brown (6'7", 180, 8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and center Luke McDonnell (6'9", 212, 9.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) for help, but Green is the only double-digit scorer on the squad.  The perimeter shooting has been borderline criminal: McDonnell is the only player on the roster averaging better than 40 percent from behind the three-point arc, and he's only taken nine three-point shots all year.  Shooting guard Spencer Haldeman (6'1", 175) is solid from the perimeter (38 percent) but doesn't translate that into points (5.9 ppg), mostly because he's only a three-point shooter (11 two-point attempts all year).  Iowa City product Wyatt Lohaus, who has been playing for UNI since the mid-90s, is under 30 percent from three.

The strategy is pretty simple: Stop Green, and stop UNI.  South Dakota State held him to five points in a game last week and walked out of Cedar Falls with a 32-point win.  Utah State did the same the previous week, as Green went for just seven in a 19-point Aggie win.  Iowa's not great at defending point guards, and simply "stopping" a player of Green's caliber isn't as easy as it sounds.  But when he's the sole focus of an Iowa staff with nine days to prepare, expect something more than Jordan Bohannon and a matador cape Saturday night.

Even if Green is unstoppable against many of his former high school opponents, Iowa's size is going to be a serious problem.  Forget the heights and look at the weights of UNI's front line for a second.  UNI has a 6'9" backup forward who weighs 235 and a seven-footer who has only played in four games all season; otherwise, it's skinny dudes across the board.  Who is stopping Tyler Cook in the lane?  Who has the mass necessary to get Luka Garza out of the way?  Iowa might shoot 50 free throws Saturday night, because Hack-a-Cook might be UNI's only chance of stopping Iowa's interior game.

It's a shame that this game is going away after this year, and the series deserves to go out with a true barn-burner like those classics of the mid-aughts.  At least on paper, this isn't going to be one of those.  This is as big a mismatch as we've ever seen in this series, and that might be the biggest shame of all.

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