It really says something about Iowa’s 2018 season that we can look back on a game in which the Hawkeyes gave up 80 points and say that it was a good defensive performance. And yet, that’s exactly where we sit following Tuesday’s 94-80 victory over Minnesota. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a lot of good to take away from that game.
Now, the Hawkeyes will have to carry that over on Saturday when they visit Penn State, starting the portion of the Big Ten schedule where Iowa will play a number of teams that they’ve already played before. Penn State is one of them – the Nittany Lions never trailed in a 77-73 win in Iowa City on December 2, their first win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 16 years.
Since that game, Penn State has been a difficult team to decipher much about. They beat Ohio State on the road (handing the Buckeyes their only conference loss this season to date) and and at one point led Michigan State by double digits in the second half at the Breslin Center on Wednesday. They’ve also lost at home to Rider, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Pat Chambers’ team is sitting at 5-6 in the Big Ten and would need a pretty miraculous run to make the NCAA tournament, something Chambers has never done in his seven seasons with the program. He’s coaching for his job.
Could that run start on Saturday in State College against the Hawkeyes? It certainly could. Penn State never dominated Iowa in that December game, but they controlled play for the entire 40 minutes. Iowa shot 50.9% in that game compared to Penn State’s 43.8% and out-rebounded the Nittany Lions by nine, but struggled with 18 turnovers and an off night from Jordan Bohannon. He’ll have to be himself again (and he’s been at his best the last few games) in order to pull out a victory.
Penn State’s roster is young, and a trio of sophomores – Tony Carr, Mike Watkins, and Lamar Stevens – lead the way for Chambers’ squad. Carr is the best of the three, a streaky point guard with great size (6-foot-5) and a smooth three-point stroke. He had 16 points against Iowa in December but shot just 5 of 15 in that game – on the season, he’s shooting 41.4% and 45% from the behind the arc, and hit a buzzer-beating three from 40 feet out to beat the Buckeyes in Columbus. He’s also improved his passing significantly. Stevens and Watkins make up a really strong frontcourt. Stevens is more effective on the offensive end, with a strong inside-out game (he had 22 points and hit 2 threes in the December game). Watkins is more of a true big man, averaging a team-best 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but still puts up double digits in points on 68.2% shooting. He’s one of the best players in the Big Ten that nobody really talks about. Shep Garner and Josh Reaves are two upperclassmen in the backcourt who both score in double figures and act as team leaders on the floor. Garner hit four threes in Penn State’s win against Iowa earlier this year.
Penn State has really focused in on defensive intensity this year and it has paid off – the Nittany Lions rank 34th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency, by far the best mark ever put up by a Penn State team in the KenPom era (2001 to the present). They are particularly exceptional at guarding inside the arc, where Mike Watkins causes trouble for any big man. Tyler Cook had 23 points and a few monster dunks in the December loss, and will need to replicate that performance in a game in which, presumably, Watkins will be switched onto him more. He doesn’t have Cook’s athleticism at all, but should still be able to challenge him under the basket. Penn State is a bit weaker at 3-point defense, ranking 177th in the nation, so don’t be surprised to see the Hawkeyes try to get Jordan Bohannon going from three early. Penn State blocks a lot of shots and forces a lot of turnovers, as well, so the Hawkeyes will need to be careful with the ball – 8 blocks and 18 turnovers doomed them the last time these two teams met.
Prediction: Penn State wins, 78-68. Penn State controlled play in a win at Iowa earlier this season, and it’s hard to imagine Iowa – who has been exceptionally poor in all but one half of basketball played on the road this season – can turn that result around in State College.