By Patrick Vint on March 4, 2021 at 2:00 pm
Where did that guy play last year?
© Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports


TIME 8:00 pm CT
WHERE Carver Hawkeye Arena
TV Big Ten Network
RADIO Learfield Affiliates
STREAM Fox Sports Live
LINE Iowa -17.5
KENPOM Iowa -17
18-7 RECORD 7-17
12-6 CONF. 3-14
124.9 (2nd) OFF. EFF. 101.9 (185th)
95.4 (58th) DEF. EFF. 92.6 (32nd)
69.8 POSS. 72.2
55.0 (29th) eFG% 48.1 (263rd)

As of this morning, Iowa is at 2.11 on Bracket Matrix.  That means that roughly eight out of every nine bracket prognosticators have the Hawkeyes as a 2 seed.  That's borderline lock territory, with just two games and the Big Tens left on the schedule.  Despite an underachieving season, a loss to Wisconsin likely wouldn't be enough to dislodge Iowa's position in favor of, say, West Virginia and Houston.  For that matter, a quarterfinal loss in the Big Ten Tournament to Wisconsin, Maryland or Rutgers wouldn't be a bad enough loss to set off a panic.

But this one?  This one could do it.

In an otherwise loaded Big Ten, Nebraska stunk out loud for most of the season.  The Huskers went a mere 4-3 in the non-conference season, including a win against Doane College, before losing their first nine games in Big Ten play.  They took nearly a month off from January 10 to February 6, and speculation had it that they just might end the season right there.  Instead, Nebraska beat Penn State on the road in their fourth game back, then lost another five in a row.

Things shifted last week.  Nebraska beat Minnesota on Saturday, which isn't that surprising given that the Huskers were at home and Minnesota is in the midst of a supernova-level implosion (they would lose the next one to Penn State by 19).  But Nebraska followed that up with another home win, this one a dominant victory over Rutgers on the day that their leading scorer left the team.  And while the Scarlet Knights have drove the strugglebus to road games this year, it hadn't reached lose-by-21-in-Lincoln status yet.

You might as well throw the Kenpom profile out the window.  So much of this team was built around Teddy Allen, the perfect Fred Hoiberg guy: Too much to handle for Bob Huggins at West Virginia, dismissed without playing a game at Wichita State after picking up a domestic violence and petty theft arrest, plucked out of a JUCO with a blind eye toward everything that had previously happened.  Allen responded by becoming one of the most high-usage players in all of college basketball, and the 16.5 points per game and 38% shooting percentage from three seemed to justify it.  And now he's gone.

The question, in light of the Huskers' shock win on Monday, is whether they're better off without him.  Sophomore swingman Dalano Banton (6'9", 200) had always been a more natural fulcrum for their offense, leading the team in assists (4.1 apg) and rebounds (6.1 rpg) and now second in scoring (9.8 ppg), but even he wasn't that crucial to the Rutgers win; in fact, he's come off the bench in both games of the current two-game winning streak.  Rather, Nebraska relied on forward Lat Mayen (6'9", 200, 8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) for 25 points, got another dozen from now-leading scorer Trey McGowens (6'4", 190, 10.7/3.9/2.3) and played really solid defense.  Rutgers shot just 3/23 from three, recovered only six offensive rebounds, and committed 13 turnovers.

This being a Fred Hoiberg team, everyone is a transfer: Banton moved to Lincoln from Western Kentucky, Mayen came from TCU and McGowens from Pitt (you might remember him scoring 10 against Iowa in the infamous "We have Maishe Dailey" game from 2018).  Throw in Tennessee transfer Derrick Walker (6'8", 235, 6.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Western Illinois grad transfer guard Kobe Webster (6'0", 170, 7.0 ppg), and you get a full starting lineup that wasn't on campus last year.  Off the bench, forward Shamiel Stevenson (6'6", 245, 5.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) also came from Pitt.  In fact, the only rotational piece from last year's team is Icelandic senior Thorir Thorbjarnarson (6'6", 200, 3.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg), whose loyalty to the program has been rewarded with two starts in the last two games.

You see all those rangy, skinny six-foot-something guys above?  That's how Hoiberg is doing it this year.  Opponents are taking an absurd number of threes against the Huskers this year: 44% of all shot attempts against Nebraska have been from three; among Big Ten teams, only Purdue has seen more threes against it.  But Nebraska's opponents are shooting just 30% from three on the season, and their block rate isn't terrible (9.4%).  That's because contesting shots with lanky 6'9" guys is different than the usual three-point contest from a guard.  Teams that go inside on Nebraska largely find success (51.3% shooting on two-point attempts and a 29% offensive rebound rate).  It just takes patience to get there.

Iowa might need less patience than most, namely because there's no obvious Nebraska answer for Luka Garza.  He'll be the biggest player on the court Thursday night by a significant margin, and the Huskers have truly struggled when there is a quality center on the opposite team.  That's true despite the fact that the centers themselves haven't always been that productive: Koburn got 24 on them, but Trevion Williams posted just 9 points and 3 boards, Liam Robbins had 7 and 8, and Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter combined for just 13 and 7.  The Huskers lost those four games by an average of 16 points, yet managed to beat a Robbins-less Minnesota.

On paper, this shouldn't be a problem for Iowa.  But this game has been problematic in the past, and Nebraska has shown an ability to make things difficult for perimeter-oriented teams.  Iowa will need to feed The Peacock early and often to take defensive pressure off the perimeter shooters.  If they can do that, a top-eight seed is within grasp.

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