IOWA (13-3, 2-3) VS. OHIO STATE (12-3, 2-2)
Iowa may or may not have Tyler Cook for Saturday's home game against Ohio State. Not only is Cook Iowa's best player, but he's also Iowa's best weapon against Ohio State's most glaring weakness. There might not be a game where having Cook would be more important this year. Fortunately, it looks like he's playing.
Fifty/fifty games like this frequently come down to where strengths and weaknesses align. If you can identify where one team can do the thing it does best and the opposition doesn't have a prayer of stopping it, you can usually find a winner. Iowa does one thing better than literally every other team in the country: Drawing fouls and making free throws. Iowa is first nationally in getting to the line, and gets a higher percentage of its points from free throws than any other team. And Ohio State likes to foul. Of Iowa's Big Ten opponents, only Northwestern allows more free throws, and we all saw what a Cook-less Iowa did to Northwestern earlier this week. Throw in Cook, the team leader in fouls drawn, and Iowa might well be building a tent city at the free throw line Saturday afternoon.
Five fouls could be an issue on the other side of the ball, as well. Ohio State also gets a ton of points at the free throw stripe, nearly at the same rate as Iowa. Sophomore center Kaleb Wesson (6'9", 270) is second nationally in fouls drawn, picking up 9.1 fouls per game against his opponents. That has led to 110 free throw attempts, exactly the same number taken by Cook so far this year. Wesson is currently the third-best player in the league according to Kenpom, behind only Ethan Happ and Carsen Edwards (Iowa will have played the conference's top five players in its first six conference games, and no, I'm not angry about that at all, Jim Delany). Wesson is a great offensive rebounder, a 34% shooter from three, and the focal point of everything OSU does on offense. He also commits a boatload of fouls, and while Ohio State's lack of height means that Wesson will likely match up with Garza, rather than Cook, the foul barrage is coming against someone.
Ohio State looks a lot like Iowa, at least on offense. The Buckeyes shoot at a 54% effective rate, which is about what Iowa shoots. They turn the ball over about once every six possessions, which is about how often Iowa turns it over. Like Iowa, the Buckeyes also run a relatively long bench; seven guys score more than seven points per game, nobody averages more than twenty -- Wesson leads the team at 17 ppg, and only point guard C.J. Jackson (6'1", 175, 13.1 ppg) also averages double digits -- and six players average more than twenty minutes per game. That includes Wesson's brother Andre (6'6", 220, 7.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), freshman guard Luther Muhammad (6'3", 185, 9.7 ppg) and senior forward Keyshawn Woods (6'3", 205, 7.7 ppg).
Twenty points is difficult for everyone in an Ohio State game, though. Opponents are shooting a horrific 30 percent from three, and an equally-horrific 45 percent inside the arc. The Buckeyes don't force many turnovers, and they don't rebound especially well. They just make shooting difficult for everyone, all the time.
Four previous games are illustrative. OSU played Creighton, which is the nation's best shooting team, and beat them by dragging the Bluejays into a 61-possession rock fight. It was the only time all year that Creighton was held below 1.00 points per possession, and Ohio State did it without forcing a bunch of turnovers or fouling. On the other side of the coin, Michigan State obliterated Ohio State by getting the Buckeyes in foul trouble -- three OSU starters, including Kaleb Wesson, fouled out -- and scoring 30 at the free throw line. In between, OSU damn near lost to Bucknell in a game where the Bison shot well from the perimeter, let Wesson do his thing (22 points, 9/10 at the line) and shut everyone else down.
And then there was Wednesday night at Rutgers, when OSU scored just 61 and lost. Ohio State only got to the line a season-low eleven times Wednesday, Wesson got in foul trouble, and the wheels came off the Buckeye offense as a result. Rutgers didn't set the world on fire offensively, but it didn't need to. Ohio State was wholly incapable of running an effective offense because Rutgers wouldn't give them free points at the line.
The lesson: You can beat Ohio State by getting their forwards in foul trouble and off the court. You can beat Ohio State by playing them clean and not giving them free points at the free throw line. You can almost beat Ohio State by letting Wesson go and putting the clamps on the rest of the lineup. What you can't do is let OSU get to the line and try to match their output with jump shots. That's what Ohio State wants you to do. Don't do it.