IOWA (16-4, 5-4) VS. MINNESOTA (14-5, 4-4)
Iowa's January schedule closes Sunday in frigid Minnesota, with a critical game against the hated Gophers. It's a fitting end to a month that has told us a lot about where Iowa sits as a program, and where reasonable expectations should be for the season's final two months.
The Gophers are not a particularly consistent bunch of shooters or defenders who make up for that problem by getting to the free throw line at an absurd rate. The main perpetrator of this tactic is their veteran power forward, who draws a ton of fouls and shoots well enough from the line to make that efficient. He's joined in the frontcourt by a nearly-seven-foot underclassman and a 6'8" swingman who also gets to the line a lot and can shoot from just about anywhere. They have size at all five positions, and can be a matchup problem for teams that switch on defense. In other words, Minnesota does all of the same things Iowa does, with similar personnel. They just don't execute those things quite as effectively as Iowa has. Minnesota is, essentially, Iowa Lite.
That's not to say they aren't dangerous. The Tyler Cook counterpart, senior forward Jordan Murphy (6'7", 250) is averaging a double-double (14.6 ppg, 12.1 rpg), is one of the nation's best defensive rebounders, and has absolutely killed Iowa over the previous two years: He recorded 25 points and 19 rebounds in a double-overtime Gopher win in 2017, and followed that last year with 21 and 17 in CHA before a pedestrian 10 points, 10 rebounds on the return trip. Daniel Oturu (6'10", 225) is one of the first true pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch matchups that Luka Garza has seen this year. He's a phenomenal offensive rebounder and shoots 57%, probably because a bunch of those shots are off offensive rebounds. Amir Coffey (6'8", 210) leads the Gophers in scoring (15.4 ppg) and gets to the line almost as often as Murphy. Minnesota can get your frontcourt in foul trouble with staggering efficiency and feast on your bench while your starters sit.
The Gophers' problem is that, when that doesn't happen, they don't really have a Plan B. They are a horrendous perimeter shooting team, and there is no major-conference team getting a lower percentage of its points from three-point baskets. Those three frontline players we talked about are a combined 20/73 from three (27%). The Minnesota guards, senior Dupree McBrayer (6'5", 195, 10.6 ppg) and freshman Gabe Kalscheur (6'4", 200, 9.7 ppg) are better -- Kalscheur is shooting 38% from three -- but this isn't a team that will rain hell from above. Rather, this is the kind of ground-and-pound basketball that you would expect from a Pitino.
Minnesota has lost five times this year. The loss to Michigan earlier this week was no disaster -- the Gophers only lost by two -- but came on Michigan's worst shooting performance of the year. The other four share one simple but illustrative statistic: Minnesota has been outrebounded by a considerable margin in each of them. The Gophers have played ahead or basically even on the boards in every game they have won; at worst, they were outrebounded by two in a double-digit win at Rutgers. In those four losses, they lost rebounding margin by an average of ten. Iowa is no great rebounding team, but they're better than three of those four teams who got the Gophers.
The strategy looks pretty simple: Try to get Murphy and Oturu in foul trouble before they can do the same to Iowa, win on the glass, and expect superior efficiency to eventually win out. But as Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Michigan have found out this year, executing that plan against Minnesota is much easier said than done.