IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the first time in 2018, I am writing a preview column after an Iowa men’s basketball victory.
Yes, the win came in overtime against an Illinois team winless in conference play that could not stop fouling and still put up 90 points in regulation, but a road win against a conference foe for an Iowa team stuck in such disarray still means something. And that something needs to be carried over to Wednesday’s road tilt against Rutgers, at 6PM on the Big Ten Network.
Iowa put up 104 points against Illinois, its highest total of the season, and came back from a 20-point deficit in the first half. The Hawkeyes showed toughness and passion in the second half to claw back for the victory. Yes, Illinois was missing three of its best players to foul trouble for all of OT, and Iowa’s defense is still a serious issue, but there are takeaways to be had.
Rutgers has not beaten Iowa since its move to the Big Ten, but has been far from a tough out this season. They took a top-10 Michigan State team to overtime last week on the road, have a win over a very good Seton Hall team and went to the wire with Florida State. That being said, the Scarlet Knights are still just 1-5 in the Big Ten and have home losses to Stony Brook and Hartford, mid-major teams in the 200’s in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
The biggest issue with Rutgers this season has been its anemic offense. The Scarlet Knights, with 10 minutes remaining in Sunday’s loss to Ohio State, had scored 30 points. Against Michigan State, they had ample opportunities to sink the Spartans in regulation and in overtime, but resorted to playing hero ball and looking disjointed on offense. Adding insult to injury, senior guard Mike Williams is currently sidelined. He was averaging just over 9 points per game and was one of the team’s best shooters … at 40% from the field. Iowa’s defense ranks 170th in KenPom, but Rutgers’ offense is a pathetic 277th. It will be very interesting to see how Iowa responds to a team playing at the offense capacity of some bad mid-major schools.
On the other hand, Rutgers is really, really good on defense. They rank 27th in KenPom’s adjusted defense and lead the Big Ten in opponent’s points per game and opponent’s field goal percentage. Only twice have they allowed 80 or more points in a game – Iowa has already done that seven times. They rank in the top 25 in block percentage, just outside the top 60 in steal percentage and in the top 15 in opponent’s adjusted field goal shooting. Rutgers is absolutely terrific defensively and should be a real test for Iowa. However, Iowa did a good job beating a pretty good defensive Illinois team on Thursday.
The Scarlet Knights’ best player is do-it-all point guard Corey Sanders. The 6-foot-2 junior, who tested the NBA waters but decided to return to school this season, could be described as someone that tries to do just too much at times. Given his teammates’ offensive ineptitude, Sanders is often forced to play hero ball or take tough, contested shots, like much of the last five minutes and overtime of the game against Michigan State. He averages 14.2 points per game but shoots under 40% from the field on almost fifteen shots a game. It’s hard to argue that he’s efficient, but at the same time easy to say that his teammates don’t help and almost force him into it.
DeShawn Freeman, an undersized power forward at 6-foot-7 is Rutgers’ best interior presence. More of a defender than a scorer, Freeman will cause fits to Tyler Cook and Luka Garza despite the size disadvantage. He averages 7.2 rebounds per game but it feels like more with his intensity and aggressiveness on the class. Iowa did a really good job of grabbing offensive and defensive rebounds against Illinois (that being a big factor in the victory), but the Scarlet Knights are demonstrably better on the glass. Raw Canadian big man Eugene Omoruyi is coming into his own this season with 5.1 rebounds per game and improved scoring, while 6-foot-10 Issa Thiam is a presence inside but doesn’t offer much offensively. Speedy freshman combo guard Geo Baker is still adjusting to power conference play but is making himself known, averaging 11.4 points per contest.
Prediction: Iowa wins, 65-57. This is the first game in a while that KenPom has the Hawkeyes projected to win, giving them a 51% chance of coming out on top – so, essentially, a toss-up. I’ll give the edge to the team that score better in a game that is surely not going to be enjoyed much by fans of offense and especially of three-pointers.