IOWA (12-3, 1-3) VS. NORTHWESTERN (10-5, 1-3)
Iowa takes another shot at breaking its Big Ten road game jinx Wednesday night when it travels to Northwestern. It might be Iowa's last chance at a road win for a while.
On the one hand, it looks like the Chris Collins boomlet at Northwestern has ebbed. After finally making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2016-17, the Wildcats were a trendy Big Ten title pick going into last season. Early February wins over Wisconsin and Michigan put them in play, and then the wheels came off: Northwestern lost their last seven games (including a 77-70 loss in Iowa City in the regular season finale) and finished 6-12 in the conference and 15-17 overall. So much for the afterglow.
So far this year, the Wildcats have held to a firm dividing line: They are 0-5 against opposition in the Kenpom top 70 and 10-0 against everyone who isn't. Their best win so far is probably a six-point home win over Georgia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Their only conference win was a nailbiter against Illinois last weekend on a last-minute three from A.J. Turner that Collins described as "courageous." So there's that.
Northwestern's Kenpom numbers are...mehhh? Offensively, they're about as average as it gets: kinda-meh 50% effective field goal rate, kinda-meh 17% turnover rate, 34% from three, 28% offensive rebound. None of it is truly atrocious, and none of it is really even good. It's all just there. The closest statistical comparable on Iowa's schedule so far would probably be UConn, although the Huskies are a far better rebounding team and play at a higher tempo. Northwestern is far better on defense, particular on the perimeter: Opponents are shooting just 27.6% from three against them, and only Stanford's opponents score fewer points from behind the arc among Power Six teams. That horrendous three-point percentage drops opponents' effective field goal rate to 46.7%, which is enough when coupled with -- wait for it -- meh-ish rebounding and turnover production.
The perimeter defense makes sense once you get a good look at Northwestern's roster. Collins is riding four upperclassmen swing-forwards hard, with seniors Vic Law (6'7", 200), Derek Pardon (6'8", 235) and Ryan Taylor (6'6", 195) and junior A.J. Turner (6'7", 188) all playing more than 31 minutes a game. Those four players represent 73% of Northwestern's scoring, 57% of its rebounding, and 61% of its assists. Sophomore Anthony Gaines (6'4", 205) ostensibly runs the point, but this is position-free basketball, and that parade of wingmen gives the Wildcats a decided size advantage on the perimeter and a significant disadvantage in the post.
On offense, Law is the do-it-all guy, although none of it is particularly great (48% from two, 37% from three, with not-so-small sample sizes on either). Pardon is as close to a post threat as they have, and Taylor and Turner shoot a bunch of perimeter jumpers, and not particularly well. Collins goes to his bench for more shooting (Miller Kopp, 6'7", 210, 42% three-point), some size (Pete Nance, 6'10", 210 and Barrett Benson, 6'10", 240), or some actual guard play (Ryan Greer, 6'2", 185) as needed, but only Kopp plays more than 12 minutes a game.
Four of Iowa's next five road games look winnable: Tonight, next Wednesday's game at Penn State, 1/27 at Minnesota and 2/16 at Rutgers. That all might not matter, as Iowa continues to get in its own way in road games. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is the easiest route to the NCAA Tournament. If Iowa is going to take that route, it should probably start tonight.