IOWA (11-3, 0-3) VS. NEBRASKA (11-3, 1-2)
Because the 20-game Big Ten schedule has thrown everything into the upside down, Iowa opened its conference schedule against Wisconsin back in November. Wisconsin, of course, has Ethan Happ, arguably the Big Ten Player of the Year to date (he's first in Kenpom's Player of the Year rankings among Big Ten players). A few days later, the Hawkeyes faced Michigan State, which doesn't have a Player of the Year candidate but is, y'know, Michigan State.
The Big Ten schedule resumed earlier this week at Purdue, with guard Carsen Edwards running the show, and if Ethan Happ isn't the Big Ten Player of the Year then it's probably Carsen Edwards. And on Sunday, Iowa gets Nebraska, which means it gets to say hi to James Palmer, the conference's third-best player. By the end of the day, Iowa will have played three of the nation's nine best guys in the first four conference contests, precisely the kind of scheduling that can sink a team before it gets out of the gate.
Palmer, a 6'6" senior swingman who transferred to Lincoln from Miami, has been a godsend for Tim Miles. He plays 32 minutes a game and drops a 20.5 ppg/4.1 rpg/2.9 apg stat line during that half-hour. He's not a great three-point shooter (34.9%), but takes more than six of them per game anyway. More importantly for Nebraska, he gets to the line constantly; his 106 free throw attempts are even more than Tyler Cook (101), and he shoots 81 percent when he gets to the stripe.
To focus too much on Palmer misses the rest of an experienced team, particularly in the frontcourt. Senior center Isaac Copeland (6'9", 225) was a five-star prospect when he committed to Georgetown back in 2013. He's never really reached that level, whether in D.C. or Lincoln, but he's Nebraska's second-leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and rebounder (5.4 rpg) this season. The other forward, junior Isaiah Roby (6'8", 230), doesn't have the recruiting credentials of Palmer or Copeland, but posts a comparable line (10.2/6.1/2.1) while acting as Nebraska's most legitimate shot blocking threat (1.5 bpg). After nineteen seasons in the program, Glynn Watson (6'0", 180) is somehow still eligible to play point guard and still contributes everywhere (13.5/4.1/4.5); his 42 percent from three has been especially helpful to a team needing to keep opponents from clogging the lane. Sophomore shooting guard Thomas Allen (6'1", 184, 8.6 ppg) rounds out the starting five.
Nebraska basically does what you're supposed to do in basketball: They protect the ball and shoot at a high percentage on offense, and contest shots without fouling on defense. The Cornhuskers have a 12.7-point spread between their effective field goal rate (55.4%) and their opponents' rate (42.7%); among Big Ten teams, only Michigan State and Indiana are better. Where most teams pick their poison on defense between the post and perimeter, Nebraska has played both at an elite level; opponents shoot 28 percent from three (11th nationally) and 43 percent from two (13th nationally). Throw in a 22.2% defensive turnover rate -- two out of every nine of their opponents' possessions ends in a turnover -- and the math of the game is pretty easy. Nebraska doesn't rebound well, but if it contests shots that well, it doesn't much matter.
What Nebraska is not is deep. The rotation is really only eight-deep now that freshman guard Amir Harris has been knocked out with mono. Nebraska got only 30 total minutes from its bench in a loss to Maryland earlier this week, with all five starters playing more than thirty minutes and Palmer sitting out for just two minutes. That may have played a part in the Cornhuskers blowing an eight-point second-half lead. It absolutely contributed to a loss at Minnesota, where both Copeland and Roby fouled out and Nebraska managed to give away a 13-point lead in the final fifteen minutes. It played a part in an earlier loss to Texas Tech, in which Palmer got into foul trouble and eventually fouled out after just 27 minutes on the court. And it's worth noting that Nebraska is 0-2 in games where a starter has fouled out, and that Iowa is still first nationally in drawing shooting fouls.
Still, this is likely to come down to the frontcourts, and Iowa isn't exactly measuring up without Luka Garza (he's a game-time decision again). If Garza doesn't play, it again comes down to Tyler Cook, and Cook vs. Palmer could be the most intriguing matchup of the entire first three months of Iowa's season. If Iowa is going to get into the victory column in the Big Ten Sunday, Cook is going to have to win.