Iowa City, Iowa – The holidays have passed and we are approaching the New Year and the start of the conference season for most college basketball conferences. The Big East has already started its conference play with some terrific games and the Big 12 and Pac-12 will begin conference play tonight. The Iowa Hawkeyes will have to wait a little longer, however. Before the team, on its longest winning streak of the season, returns to Big Ten play, they have one more tune-up game.
The Hawkeyes welcome Northern Illinois to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the last game of the 2017 calendar year, a 7PM tip on BTN Plus. For Iowa, this is one last warm-up game to prepare the team for the rigors of Big Ten play that returns when the calendar flips. On the team’s current four game winning streak, they have not beaten a team ranked in the top 115 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings – in 2018, they will only play one game against a team not ranked in the top 100. There is confidence growing within the team, but tonight’s tilt is again nothing more than another exhibition before Iowa welcomes Michigan on January 2.
Northern Illinois should not pose much of a threat to an Iowa team that is learning to play together and has been firing on all cylinders. The Huskies have been a perennial middle-of-the-conference team in the MAC under Mark Montgomery, who has taken NIU to just one postseason tournament (the one-off Vegas 16 in 2016, in which they did not win a game) and has yet to finish a season inside KenPom’s top 165.
2017 has been no different. NIU is 7-5, but the record is deceiving. They are #236 at KenPom and have not beaten a team ranked above 200. The Huskies were respectable in a 14-point loss at Iowa State and a 9-point loss at Marquette, but also lost to a very poor Florida Atlantic team and have two wins over non-Division I schools.
The Huskies are really good at one thing, though – they have the ball stolen from them less than any other Division I team, per KenPom, and are 36th in turnover rate. Iowa has done a better job of forcing turnovers as of late, but despite NIU’s flaws on offense (215th in adjusted offense), they don’t give the ball up much. Iowa will have to find ways to exploit them if the turnovers don’t come to them. Offensively, the Huskies almost never shoot threes, which is great news for an Iowa team that struggles with 3-point defense frequently. NIU is also poor on defense, including being one of the worst teams in the nation at blocking shots.
Iowa will have a size advantage, with Tyler Cook, Luka Garza and Jack Nunge towering over a smaller Huskie lineup. NIU’s tallest rotational player, 6-foot-9 Lacey James, plays 20 minutes a game but is just a 27.6% shooter from the field. Levi Bradley, at 6-foot-7, is likely who Cook will be assigned to guard. He averages 14.8 points a contest and also comes down with nearly 6 boards a game, and has developed a three-point shot.
NIU’s best player is a guard, sophomore Eugene Sherman, who is one of the best players in the MAC. A scoring point guard, he takes more than a quarter of NIU’s shots when he is on the floor, and makes a good number of them too, averaging 19.7 points per game on 47.3% shooting and 32.7% shooting from behind the arc. He’s not prone to share the ball, however – on a Huskie team that never turns it over, Sherman averages more turnovers (2.4) than assists (2.0). Northern Illinois’ only other player in double figures is 6-foot-4 former junior college All-American Dante Thorpe, at 12.5 points per game.
This should be another easy victory for the Hawkeyes as they gear up for conference play. Maishe Dailey, who has been terrific in the win streak, should see significant playing time again as he looks to establish himself even further.
Prediction: Iowa wins, 85-64