So after a couple years of predicting Iowa's return to basketball relevancy, it seems like it has finally happened. Iowa looks to be one of the better teams in the Big Ten and a legitimate conference title challenger. What has Fran McCaffery done over the last few years to get Iowa to this point?
ROSS: The main thing McCaffery has done to get Iowa to this point is to stick to his plan. He came in wanting to recruit athletes with a lot of length and versatility; he's done that. He came in wanting to play at a fast tempo; he's done that. He came in wanting to develop a team that legitimately goes 10-11 men deep to give him more options for match-ups and more ability to wear teams down through a fast tempo and trapping defenses; he's done that. He's also done only what the players he had available could support. The offense plays at a faster tempo now because they have the depth to support it; when they weren't as deep a few years ago, they played a bit slower. I think the other thing that's benefited him is that this is the first year when he has a full complement of essentially "his" players; all of the players on this team have only been coached by him and his staff. That isn't meant to be a slight on the players who were here before -- some of them, like Matt Gatens, were very good -- but the previous coaching staff had a, uh, rather different approach to playing basketball and the adjustment period was difficult for some players. I think it's clear now that everyone on the team is very much in sync with one another, which makes for a team that plays together very, very well.
Iowa's offense is both fast (73 poss. per game, 12th nationally) and efficient (1.2 ppp, 4th nationally). Has McCaffery always used this uptempo style at Iowa, and what makes it so successful this season?
ROSS: Since Fran arrived, he's talked about wanting Iowa to run and play at a faster pace, so the way they're playing this year certainly isn't a surprise. They've led the Big Ten in tempo every year since McCaffery took over at Iowa and it doesn't look like that will be changing this season. They are playing at an even faster tempo than ever before this year, though; in previous years, Iowa's tempo hovered around 67-68 possessions per game, on average. This year, they've pushed that number to 73 possessions per game, on average. As for what's made it so successful, I'd say the two biggest factors are depth and experience. Iowa feels comfortable with a 10-11 man rotation, meaning there are liberal substitutions and nominal back-ups end up playing a lot of minutes in most games. And they're able to do that because this is a very experienced team: outside of true freshman Peter Jok and sophomore transfer Jarrod Uthoff, that aforementioned 11-man rotation is loaded with sophomores, juniors, and seniors who have been playing together for quite some time. That level of continuity and on-court understanding of one another has been invaluable in allowing Iowa to absolutely blitz teams at times this year.
ROSS: Iowa has a wave of forwards and centers that they run at teams. The starting front court is comprised of junior Aaron White, senior Melsahn Basabe, and sophomore Adam Woodbury. White is Iowa's second-leading scorer (14.0 ppg) and rebounder (6.4 rpg), while Basabe is Iowa's leading rebounder (6.8 rpg) and adds 7.7 ppg. White is devastating in transition and has been shooting lights out this year (.659 FG%), while Basabe has been doing a little bit of everything for Iowa: scoring when they need him, gobbling up rebounds (his rebounds helped Iowa secure their win over Ohio State a week ago), and playing solid defense as well. Woodbury's stats are fairly unremarkable (5.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.3 bpg), but his 7-foot presence in the post provides a valuable defensive deterrent and he's a strong passer that helps Iowa's ball movement on offense.
Iowa's front court off the bench is also very good, though. Jarrod Uthoff, Zach McCabe, and Gabe Olaseni are averaging a 23.3 ppg, 14.2 rpg, and 2.7 bpg, which is production that's difficult for most opposing second units to match. Uthoff and McCabe are also two of Iowa's better three-point shooters (.522 and .341, respectively, although McCabe has been mired in a bit of a shooting slump lately), which adds some much-needed floor-stretching ability to Iowa's offensive sets. Uthoff, a much-publicized transfer from Wisconsin, has seen his role grow steadily over the course of the season; he's one of Iowa's best players at generating his own shot and he's a very capable rebounder. Olaseni doesn't have the most polished offensive game, but he's excellent in transition, a force around the rim, and a great injection of energy for Iowa's team. Iowa's defense hasn't always locked down opposing big men (Iowa State's Georges Niang and Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman, to name two, had big games against Iowa), but in part that was a strategic consideration: Iowa conceded some points inside in order to lock down the perimeter a bit more securely.
Iowa had a halftime lead on Wisconsin two weeks ago but the Badgers took over the game and held Iowa to eight points in the first ten minutes of the second half. How did Wisconsin clamp down defensively, and what can Michigan do to slow Iowa down for long stretches like that?
ROSS: There haven't been many stretches where Iowa's offense has really bogged down this season -- there was the aforementioned period against Wisconsin, the first half of the Xavier game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, a run in the second half of the Villanova game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and maybe a few brief stretches against Iowa State and Ohio State. But for the most part Iowa's offense has done a very good job of avoiding prolonged fallow periods this year and been able to stay on track in games; hence those gaudy offensive numbers. I would say that Iowa struggles a bit more with zone defenses, if only because if you can stop the dribble penetration from Gesell and Marble, Iowa's offense can stagnate at times. Iowa's outside shooting can be streaky (though the overall percentages are pretty good), although getting Josh Oglesby healthy (he had a foot injury that kept him out of almost the entire non-conference portion of Iowa's schedule) has been a boon in that regard -- he's shooting a scorching 60% from deep (small sample size alert) since returning to the lineup. But the best way to stop Iowa's offense has been to get a strong offensive performance of your own; teams that have been able to make shots and set up their own defenses have generally been much more effective at stymieing Iowa's offense. Iowa's offense relies fairly heavily on getting in transition off defensive rebounds and turnovers; if you're able to slow that down and force Iowa to play in the half court more, you'll have a much better chance of slowing down Iowa's offense -- and winning.
What are three keys to an Iowa win in Ann Arbor, and do you think the Hawkeyes get the win on the road?
ROSS: I'd say the three keys to an Iowa victory on Wednesday are offensive rebounding, free throw attempts, and turnovers. Iowa is very good at grabbing offensive rebounds and getting easy put-backs and second chance points; Michigan is very good at keeping other teams from doing that (although not very good at getting their own offensive rebounds, it seems). If Iowa's able to control the offensive glass in this game, that's going to improve their odds of winning. In terms of free throws, Iowa attempts almost 31 per game; they're among the best in the nation at getting to the line. Iowa converts from there at a pretty good rate (72.5%, 79th best in the nation), although they had some painful misses late in losses to Villanova and Iowa State. But getting to the free throw line is a key part of Iowa's offense and failing to do that against Michigan will make getting that road win much harder. Finally, Iowa's ability to generate turnovers (as well as avoid their own) will be a key factor, since turnovers are one of the main ways that Iowa gets its transition offense rolling. Michigan has been very good about protecting the ball this year, so Iowa may be hard-pressed to generate many turnovers.
I think this will be yet another very difficult road test for Iowa; Michigan has come together much better than I expected after losing McGary and they're playing very well lately (as evidenced by that impressive road win over Wisconsin on the weekend). The good news for Iowa is that they've already played some very good teams in some hostile road environments (Iowa State, Wisconsin, Ohio State) and while they only won one of those games (Ohio State), they played well in large stretches of the games they lost, too. I don't think this team, given their experience, is likely to be rattled by yet another difficult road environment. I have some concern that the increasing national hoopla around them might hurt their focus a bit and I have some always-present trepidation about Michigan (especially Stauskas) just shooting the lights out against Iowa... but I also have a lot of confidence in this team. Ohio State may not be quite as excellent as they seemed a few weeks ago, but Iowa's road win in Columbus a few weeks ago still feels like a watershed moment for this team and one that has given them a great deal of confidence in their ability to win -- in tough environments, against tough opponents. Frankly, it's given me a fair amount of confidence in them, too. I expect this to be a very hard game and likely a game that's close in the final few minutes, but I'm not going to bet against this team right now, either. Iowa 78, Michigan 72.