Let's Get Frantic: Northwestern

By Patrick Vint on January 14, 2020 at 3:00 pm
© David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

IOWA (11-5, 2-3) VS. NORTHWESTERN (6-9, 1-4)

DATE: January 14, 2020
TIME: 7:00 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Welsh-Ryan Arena
RADIO: Learfield Sports
LINE: Iowa -5.5
KENPOM: Iowa -5 (Iowa 70% win probability)

Last week, Iowa lost at Nebraska by six, then beat Maryland at home by 18.  Those two things happening within four days of each other makes no sense, except that this is the most home-court-advantaged conference in the history of college basketball.

I bring this up because Iowa goes on the road again Tuesday night, again against an opponent that looks woefully inadequate on paper, and it might not matter at all.  It's a road game in the Big Ten, and that appears to mean it's a guaranteed loss for the Hawkeyes.

Yes, Northwestern is 6-9 (nice!) on the season.  Yes, they have lost to Merrimack, Radford and Hardford, which were the bulk of the British fleet during the War of 1812.  Yes, their only Big Ten win was over Nebraska at home this weekend, and yes, they failed to cover the spread.  Their best win was over Providence (currently No. 74 in Kenpom) on November 13.  Their best win since December 1 was probably Nebraska, and everyone with a pulse has walked away from the 'Cats with a win since Thanksgiving.

The Wildcats combine some fairly horrendous shooting -- just a 47.8% effective rate from the field, 31.3% from three -- with even-more-horrendous offensive rebounding to create a cauldron of offensive inefficiency on par with Nebraska.  They lack a go-to guy: Five Wildcats average more than nine points per game, and none average more than 13. 

The only senior getting starting minutes is point guard Pat Spencer (6'3", 205), who is rocking the most Northwestern Basketball name ever.  Spencer leads the 'Cats starters in usage rate.  As a result, Spencer is averaging 10.8 points per game and dropping nearly 4 assists per contest, in just 27 minutes per game of playing time.  Northwestern's backcourt depth took two serious hits when junior guard Anthony Gaines went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in mid-December and freshman guard Boo Buie suffered a high ankle sprain soon after.  Senior swingman A.J. Turner (6'7", 200), who you might remember from that time last year where he dropped 15 on the Hawks in Carver Hawkeye, has become the de facto shooting guard. 

Neither Spencer nor Turner has shot well from three, leaving those responsibilities to sophomore forward Miller Kopp (6'7", 210).  Kopp has been on a tear since Gaines went down, averaging 19.2 points per game in the last six contests.  He's shooting 42 percent from three, and he's not afraid to take them (4.8 attempts per game).  Kopp is freed to patrol the perimeter largely because Northwestern isn't lacking in size: Sophomore forward Pete Nance (9.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and freshman center Ryan Young (10.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg) give the 'Cats a pair of 6'10" anchors in the post, with another pair of freshmen, Jared Jones (6'10", 240, 1.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and Robbie Beran (6'9", 205, 4.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), available on the bench.  Nance is the team's second-most-frequent perimeter shooter, and his 26% rate from three has apparently not convinced him to stop firing from deep.

Even with all that height, Northwestern isn't a good interior defensive team, blocking a paltry 7.6% of shot attempts and allowing 48 percent shooting from inside the three-point arc.  And with all that height on the court, Northwestern doesn't jump passing lanes or make ball movement particularly difficult.  The Wildcats played a lot of zone initially this season; I'll admit that I haven't watched them much since then, but the Kenpom profile points heavily toward zone defense.  Frankly, that's catnip for Iowa's present setup, with Slashin' Joe Weiskamp moving into holes in the defense and wreaking havoc.

On paper, you have Iowa's highly efficient offense, which moves the ball better than all but a handful of teams nationally, against a Northwestern defense that doesn't really stop ball movement all that well.  You have the newfound beat-'em-up Iowa defense against a whole bunch of guys who don't seem that interested in getting dirty.  This looks like a fairly elementary Iowa win.

But you also have a Big Ten road game, where betting on the road team -- any road team -- has been a loser, and an Iowa team that just lost to a worse team on the road seven days ago.  Weirder things than an Iowa loss in this scenario have happened routinely this winter.  Welcome to the ball of knives that is the Big Ten.

View 26 Comments