Iowa City, Iowa – After a miracle overtime comeback victory over Illinois a week and a half ago, the Iowa men’s basketball team has fallen back to earth, back to their losing ways. The Hawkeyes were noncompetitive in a loss to Purdue on Saturday in which Chris Street was honored and dozens of former Hawkeyes were in attendance. They’ll have a second chance to right the ship at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday night when Wisconsin comes to town.
Generally, Iowa would be a significant underdog anytime a Wisconsin team came to Iowa City in mid-January. This Wisconsin team is not like most others, however. The Badgers are 10-10, 3-4 in the Big Ten and in serious danger of snapping their streak of sixteen straight seasons finishing in the top four of the Big Ten. Wisconsin did lose four starters from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, but it is hard to believe the Badgers have been this bad.
Wisconsin doesn’t have a truly bad loss – all seven of their non-conference losses came to teams in the top 100 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings – but they also haven’t beaten any teams of note to date, performing thoroughly mediocre. The Badgers rank just inside the top 100 in KenPom’s adjusted offense (85th) and defense (95th) rankings. Due to injuries, they’ve been forced at times to start two walk-ons.
Wisconsin’s offense, when it is on, can be dangerous. And the Hawkeyes, last among power conference teams with an adjusted defense ranking of 223 (worst of the Fran McCaffery era, and worst by an Iowa team since KenPom started tracking stats in the 2000-01 season), have tended to allow a lot of inconsistent offenses to have good nights against them. Rutgers, the worst offensive team in the Big Ten, hung 80 on the Hawkeyes. Purdue set a Big Ten record for three-pointers on Saturday with 20 triples.
The Badgers’ offensive attack starts and revolves around junior big man Ethan Happ, who is 6-foot-10 but agile and plays like a guard. Happ is scoring at a career high rate in 2017-18 (16.7 points per game) while grabbing 8.5 boards and dishing out 3.7 assists. He shoots at an 56.3% clip from the field and is a presence defensively inside. Stopping him will be a task likely left up to Luka Garza (who was exceptional against Purdue, the Hawkeyes’ only bright spot) and Tyler Cook.
Beyond Happ, the Badgers have talent, but it is inexperienced and often inconsistent. Brad Davidson is the only other Badger scoring in double figures (at 12.1 PPG) and shoots 37.9% from three. He’s a little like Jordan Bohannon as a guard probably more suited for the 2-spot who’s been asked to handle point guard duties much of the year. He’s averaging as many assists as turnovers and struggles to beat opponents off the dribble on both offense and defense, again similar to Bohannon. Brevin Pritzl (8.4 PPG) is extremely inconsistent with his shot but can get hot in a hurry. Khalil Iverson is a do-it-all forward who’s a bit undersized and doesn’t excel at any particular aspect of the game, but he’s a guy to keep an eye on.
The Hawkeyes like to run the ball up the court pretty quickly, but will be met with a clash of styles on Tuesday as they play the Badgers – only three teams in the country run a slower tempo on offense than Wisconsin does. This was a quality of every great Bo Ryan team at Wisconsin and something his longtime assistant Greg Gard has carried over to his players. The Badgers won’t turn the ball over much, and tend to shoot more 2-pointers than 3-pointers with the size of Happ inside. For an Iowa team that is one of the nation’s worst at 3-point defense, this should come as a relief.
Prediction: Wisconsin wins, 67-60. It’s hard to pick Iowa to win any sort of basketball game right now. The only one they’ve won in the past three weeks is against an Illinois team that ranks worse than the Hawkeyes in basically every category except defense. Wisconsin might not start draining threes like Purdue did, but the Hawkeyes defense is leaky enough that they should be able to exploit it.