IOWA (22-10, 10-10) VS. #10 MICHIGAN (26-5, 15-5)
For the first time in six years, we get to talk about Iowa basketball playing a game on Friday at the Big Ten Tournament. Hooray for progress! If we want to talk about Iowa hoops playing a game on Saturday at the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in 13 years, though, we're going to need to see an excellent performance tonight because Iowa's opponent is a very talented, well-rested foe who's probably itching to deliver some payback to the Hawkeyes.
The good news is that of all the top four teams in the Big Ten that Iowa could have drawn, Michigan is probably the best one -- at least based on the results this season. Iowa went 0-5 against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Purdue, getting throttled in all three road games against those schools, but did manage to go 1-0 against Michigan earlier this year. In fact, that 74-59 win over the Wolverines back on February 1 was probably the single-best game that Iowa has played all season, especially on defense, where they held the Wolverines to just 59 points on 0.82 PPP. Suffice to say, there were precious few outings like that this year, especially against teams of Michigan's quality.
Michigan boasts one of the most balanced teams in the Big Ten, sitting 19th in offensive efficiency and third nationally in defensive efficiency (per KenPom). Among Big Ten squads, only Michigan State (fourth in offensive efficiency, ninth in defensive efficiency) is as good on both sides of the ball as the Wolverines. Defensively, they're still really good at the things they were good at back in early February: they contest shots very well (allowing a 44.3% eFG%), particularly from deep (teams are making just 29.4% of their three-point attempts against them), although teams are also struggling to convert shots closer to the basket as well (making just 44.4% of those). They also don't foul (their 24.8% foul rate is 11th best in the nation), and they're pretty good about preventing teams from collecting missed shots (opponents are grabbing just 25.7% of their offensive rebounds this year).
While Iowa didn't do a ton of damage at the free throw line last night, that's been a key source of their offense all season (their offensive free throw rate of 42.7% ranks 9th nationally and they get 23% of their scoring from free throws, which ranks 12th nationally), and it was a big part of their win over Michigan back in February -- they fouled out Jon Teske in 13 minutes of play and kept Isaiah Livers and Ignas Brazdeikis on the bench for long stretches of play. That helped Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener thrive; Iowa's bigs combined for 34 points on 14/21 shooting, including 12/17 on 2-point baskets, and 18 rebounds. (Tyler Cook had a quieter game, scoring 7 points on 2/9 shooting.) Getting Garza and Kriener going should be a key part of Iowa's gameplan tonight.
Iowa shot the lights out from deep against Illinois (12/23) and were pretty good from long range against Michigan in the first meeting (6/14, 42.9%). But Iowa's three-point shooting has been decidedly iffy in recent weeks and, as noted above, teams have not shot the 3 well against Michigan this year, generally speaking. Michigan's losses to Michigan State this year look interesting from an Iowa perspective. Sparty wasn't able to hit much from deep in either game (25% in the first game, 27% in the second game), but they were wildly effective on 2-point shots (68% in game one, 63% in game two) and they got to the free throw line a lot (24/30 in game, 23/30 in game two). Xavier Tillman, Michigan State's 6-8, 245 lb center, had big games in both of those contests, which could bode well for Cook, Garza, and Kriener. (Of course, Michigan State also had Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, who was devastating in both wins, and Iowa has no one like that.)
When Michigan is on offense, the key for Iowa will be to stay patient and force the Wolverines into bad looks. Michigan doesn't go to the free throw line much (their free throw rate of 28.2% ranks just 296th nationally) and they don't grab many offensive rebounds (their 24.9% offensive rebound rate is 280th nationally), but they're elite at not turning the ball over (just 13.8% offensive possessions, 3rd best nationally) and they get pretty good shots; Michigan boasts an eFG% of 51.9%, 123rd best nationally.
Michigan's main weapon on offense is Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ignas Brazdeikis, a 6-7, 215 lb forward leading the team in scoring (15.0 ppg) and second on the team in rebounds (5.3 rpg). Outside of Brazdeikis, most of Michigan's offensive firepower comes from their top three guards, 6-5, 195 lb sophomore Jordan Poole (averaging 13.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, and 2.1 apg on 54.6% eFG), 6-6, 205 lb senior Charles Matthews (averaging 12.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and 1.4 apg on 48% eFG), and 6-0, 190 lb junior Zavier Simpson (averaging 9.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and 6.3 apg on 47.9% eFG). Poole (16) and Simpson (10) each went for double figures against Iowa, but neither guy was hitting from outside (combined 3/14) and Matthews was even worse (six points on 2/12 shooting, including 2/7 from 3-point range). Keeping Michigan's perimeter guys in check figures to be a big job. Michigan's other bigs, 7-1, 260 lb junior Jon Teske (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.2 bpg on 56.5% eFG) and 6-7, 235 lb Isaiah Livers (7.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg on 61.2% eFG), have been dynamite parts of Michigan's offense as well. Tesle (21/66, 31.8%), Livers (43/100, 43%), and Brazdeikis (48/115, 41.7%) are also very capable of raining fire from deep, stretching out a defense.
One thing to watch: can Iowa's defense hold up in the second half. In their recent four-game losing streak, Iowa got absolutely torched after half time on a regular basis; Nebraska (50) and Ohio State (54) both cut through Iowa's weak defense for 50 or more points, while Rutgers had 47 and Wisconsin had 34 (which probably translates to 45-50 points for a team that doesn't play at a glacially slow pace). Iowa used a big finish to the first half in the first game against Michigan (outscoring them 28-12 in the final 10 minutes of the half to go up 42-29 at the break) and then playing them even (32-30 Iowa edge) in the second half. Iowa will probably need a second half like that to stay alive in the Big Ten Tournament tonight.
Michigan enters this game hungry and well-rested (they haven't had a game since Saturday, while Iowa has played twice since then) and likely with a chip on their shoulder. Their late season losses to bitter rival Michigan State cost the Wolverines a shot at a Big Ten title and that early February defeat at Iowa have no doubt given them a chip on their shoulder and they'll be eager to regain their edge against the Hawkeyes on Friday. Michigan's also been brilliant in the Big Ten Tournament in recent years, going 11-1 over the last three iterations. In fact, they enter this year's event on an 8-game winning streak, having won the tournament crown in both 2017 and 2018. Success in the Big Ten Tournament is rarefied air for Iowa, but it's been business as usual for the Wolverines. You have to go back to 2006 to find a season in which Michigan didn't manage to win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament.
The good news for Iowa is that last night's win stopped the bleeding and silenced any doubts about Iowa's NCAA Tournament status that may have been lingering (or growing) during their recent 4-game losing skid. They should be firmly part of the field of
64 68 now and likely have no need to worry about getting sent to Dayton for the play-in games. At this point, Iowa is playing to improve their seed and play their way off the 8/9 line into a more favorable situation. That's a much more reassuring position to be in than fighting for your bubble existence.
So let's just enjoy this house money that we're playing with and see what tonight's action holds. If Iowa can shoot like they did last night and play defense like they did against Michigan in their first meeting, we could really have something to celebrate tonight.