IOWA (17-5, 6-5) VS. INDIANA (13-9, 4-7)
This time last week, this game looked a whole lot different.
This time last week, it looked highly likely that Iowa would be heading to Bloomington outside the AP Top 25 for a second consecutive week and trying to bandage over a possible four-game losing streak, the sort of streak that will knock you out of the Big Ten race and onto the NCAA bubble. Michigan was coming to town, and they didn't look like a great matchup.
This time last week, Indiana had lost SEVEN consecutive Big Ten games, the Hoosiers' longest conference losing streak since 2011. These weren't normal Big Ten "The Scheduling Gods Killed Us" losses, either. Indiana lost to Nebraska (at home), Northwestern and Rutgers during that stretch. There was legitimate conversation as to whether Archie Miller would even get a third season as coach. Nebraska football comparisons were everywhere, and Michigan State was waiting in East Lansing on Saturday.
And then Iowa beat Michigan. And then Indiana beat Michigan State. And now we don't know what the hell this is supposed to be.
Indiana is not a perimeter team. The Hoosiers' starting forwards have combined to take 55 percent of the Hoosiers' shots this season, and 62 percent of their free throw attempts. Indiana gets most of its scoring inside the arc, and takes fewer threes as a ratio to two-point attempts than just about any team Iowa will see this year (only Minnesota is more interior-oriented among Big Ten teams).
With that said, a big part of Indiana's win in East Lansing was absurd perimeter shooting. The Hoosiers made 10/20 from behind the three-point line Saturday, a whopping 17 percent higher than they have shot on the season. That pushed an offense that had scored less than a point per possession in its last five games over the 1.00 line and back into positive territory. They had shot 4/21 from three just eleven days earlier in an ugly loss at Northwestern, 4/20 three days before that at Purdue, and 2/14 four days before THAT in a hideous home loss to Nebraska.
The oddest part of those numbers, though, is that Indiana has some competent outside shooters. Senior forward Juwan Morgan (6'8", 232) is 38 percent on the year from three, as are freshman guard Rob Phinisee (6'1", 185) and junior backup guard Devonte Green (6'3", 185). Sophomore shooting guard Aljami Durham (6'4", 181) is even better, cashing in 40 percent of his three-point attempts this year.
But in the end, all of that relative success is nullified by the one name you're going to hear on repeat from the ESPN crew tonight: Romeo Langford (6'6", 215), the reigning Indiana Mr. Basketball, five-star recruit and presumed NBA lottery pick this summer or the next. Langford plays more minutes than anyone else on the Indiana roster, takes more shots than anyone when he's on the court, terminates more possessions, draws more fouls, and shoots more free throws. He's also a 24 percent three-point shooter this year, and yet has taken more threes than any other player on the roster by a third.
When combined with fellow forwards Morgan and Justin Smith (6'7", 227), Indiana's Langford-centric frontcourt truly runs the show for Miller. But what became obvious in recent weeks is that, as the conference season wore on and refereeing became increasingly complacent about interior contact, Indiana's entire philosophy was called into doubt, not just due to the losses but also in how they lost. Indiana didn't need to suddenly become a volume three-point shooting team, but they needed that weapon in order to free up their interior stars to work.
What works in Iowa's favor tonight is that the Hawkeyes remain one of the better perimeter defensive teams in the league at the moment (just ask Michigan how that works out). The bad news is, like Minnesota and decidedly unlike Michigan, that might not matter much, as the Hawkeyes are also the worst two-point defending team in the conference not named Illinois by miles. In their five losses this year, the Hawkeyes have allowed opponents to shoot 66% (Minnesota), 63% (Purdue), 59% (MSU II and Wisconsin), and 58% (MSU I) on two-point baskets. That's the stuff of layup lines, and those percentages make it extremely difficult for Iowa to make up the efficiency gap (especially when trying to do it with free throws). Indiana wants to go to the basket. Iowa hasn't been so good at stopping that in games it lost. If Indiana isn't dropping bombs from deep at a highly uncharacteristic rate, that seems to be the simple matchup issue to be resolved tonight.