IOWA (18-8, 9-6) VS. OHIO STATE (17-8, 7-7)
It's certainly unusual for Iowa to get a first-time conference opponent in late February, but the Hawkeyes get two of them in the next five days. First on tap: Ohio State, Thursday night at Carver Hawkeye, with TV coverage on ESPN.
OSU's season has been peculiar, even by Big Ten standards. The Buckeyes started the campaign by winning 11 of their first 12, including blowout wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Penn State. On December 15, the Buckeyes were Kenpom No. 1 and AP No. 2. When they beat Kentucky four days before Christmas, they were probably the best team in the nation by any metric.
And then it all just sort of fell apart in the New Year. Ohio State lost to West Virginia (no real shame in that) on December 29, then dropped five of their first six Big Ten games in the proper season (they had split the two early December contests). Less than a month ago, Ohio State was still in the Kenpom top 12 but 2-6 in conference games and twice losers at home, an inconceivable position in a conference where home court guaranteed victories. At the end of January, guard D.J. Cotton left the team to deal with mental health issues, and the wheels looked to be completely off the wagon.
Almost as quickly as it was gone, the season came back. Ohio State beat Indiana, Rutgers and Purdue at home, grabbed a surprise win over Michigan in Ann Arbor, and are now back to .500 in the Big Ten. They pounded a desperate Purdue squad over the weekend, winning by 16 and holding the Boilers to 0.76 points per possession. Even with Purdue once again reeling, it's one of the most impressive victories in a resume full of them.
If you can make sense of Ohio State's statistical profile, you're a better man than I. Obviously, everything starts with junior center Kaleb Wesson (6'9", 270). The three-year starter leads the team in points (14.4 ppg), rebounds (9.4 rpg) and blocks (1.1 bpg). He's currently 10th in Kenpom's Player of the Year standings (though a sorta-stunning third just among Big Ten centers).
Aside from Wesson, however, production disperses. Ohio State has just two other players who average more than 10 points per game: Sophomore guard Duane Washington (6'3", 190, 10.6 ppg), who does that from the bench, and the aforementioned Carton, who isn't even playing at the moment. Wesson's brother Andre (6'6", 220) is their second most-productive starter, at 9.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg. The other starters -- point guard C.J. Walker (6'1", 195, 7.6 ppg, 3.2 apg), shooting guard Luther Muhammed (6'3", 185, 6.4 ppg) and power forward Kyle Young (6'8", 205, 7.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) -- all contribute around the edges, but it's not exactly like Ohio State's dynamic offensive attack jumps off the page.
The one thing Ohio State does extremely well offensively is shoot threes: The team is north of 38 percent from behind the arc. Four Ohio State starters shoot better than 35 percent from three. Washington, who basically acts as a do-it-all backcourt reserve, is 40/102 on the season (by way of comparison, only Weiskamp has taken that many threes for Iowa this season, and Washington's rate is a couple of percentage points better). Even Kaleb Wesson, ostensible center, is shooting 47 percent on two-point attempts, but a staggering 43 percent from three, and it's not on a small sample size: Wesson averages more than three three-point attempts per game. They rain hell from above.
The Buckeyes have also been quite good at clogging the lane on defense. Opponents are shooting just 41 percent on two-point attempts against them, the fourth-lowest rate in the nation. That rate jumps to 46 percent in Big Ten games, though, and there's a distinct pattern at play. Centers haven't hit them too hard: Jalen Smith scored 11 in a Maryland victory, Oturu barely in double digits in two Minnesota wins, Derek Culver with just seven for West Virginia. But where teams have had a center capable of keeping the larger Wesson occupied, slashing guards and wings have cleaned up: Cowan had 20, including 10 from the free throw line, in that Maryland game. Marcus Carr scored 56 combined in those two Minnesota games. Miles McBride led everyone with 21 for West Virginia.
Iowa doesn't have a guard that fits the same bill as those guys. Joe Touissant could eventually be that guy, but he's not there yet. Expecting Luka Garza alone to carry Iowa's offense against Wesson is a tall order, even for a guy who could well be national Player of the Year. If Iowa is going to get into the paint and open Ohio State's defense like a tin can, it's going to have to be through Joe Weiskamp as a quasi-two-guard. That's the ticket to a big home win Thursday night.