IOWA (18-5, 7-5) VS. NORTHWESTERN (12-10, 3-8)
Three weeks ago, Iowa beat Illinois at home to move to 5-3 on the Big Ten season. The Hawkeyes next faced four brutal games: Home contests with MSU and Michigan, road trips to Minnesota and Indiana. The schedule would let up somewhat after those four games, but this is Iowa basketball; losing four in a row could set off a chain reaction that took out the entire season. It had before. We were witnesses.
As we now know, there was no implosion. Iowa couldn't handle the Michigan State buzzsaw and lost close at Minnesota, but a solid -- and surprising -- victory over Michigan was backed up by a road win at Indiana, and suddenly Iowa is in contention for a two-day bye at the Big Ten Tournament. The next task: Consolidating those gains. That task starts Sunday evening against Northwestern.
Not much has changed for the Wildcats since we last saw them a month ago. Northwestern is still running out five guys between 6'4" and 6'8" for a huge chunk of time. Northwestern is still using its bench less than just about every squad in the nation. Northwestern's big bunch of small forwards still makes life a nightmare on the perimeter (opponents are shooting a Big Ten-low 29 percent from three) and a dream for big forwards and slashing guards (only Michigan allows a higher percentage of points on two-point baskets among Big Ten teams).
Offensively, Northwestern simply doesn't shoot well enough to make up for its lack of interior scoring. None of the Wildcats' five starters crack 35 percent from three, and the team is the Big Ten's worst at two-point field goal attempts (45.9%). That has added up to a 43.5% effective field goal rate in Big Ten games, the conference's worst by a considerable margin. Throw in the fact that Northwestern is 1-9 overall and winless away from Evanston against the Kenpom top 60 (Iowa is 24th, as of this morning) and riding a three-game losing streak that included a seven-point home loss to Penn State earlier this week, and things don't look good for the visitors.
Iowa's Achilles heel all year has been defense at the rim. Conference opponents have made 55 percent of two-point attempts on Iowa this year, mostly because Iowa's zone-heavy scheme is susceptible to baseline slashers when the ball gets to the high post. That didn't much matter in Evanston, where A.J. Turner, Vic Law and Ryan Taylor took more threes than twos and didn't make much of either. Northwestern doesn't appear to have the dribble-drive distribution or high post presence to break Iowa down, and their general lack of efficiency on the offensive end -- and Iowa's ability to score in the post and cause all sorts of foul trouble for a team with a shallow bench -- should cost them in the end.