Since Michigan and Iowa last met the Hawkeyes have dropped two games at home. What happened in these games and is it anything you think Michigan can take advantage of?
ROSS: It was the curse of Super Tuesday on ESPN.
No, in all seriousness, one of Iowa's major issues in those losses was defending the three-pointer. Michigan State drained 10 against Iowa (although they took 29 shots from deep to get there, so their average wasn't great), while Ohio State went 7/16 from long range this past Tuesday. Meanwhile, Iowa went a combined 6/32 from deep in those games which... well, that's not good. Just the fact that Iowa even attempted 20 3-pointers in Tuesday's game against Ohio State was a very bad sign; most winning formulas for Iowa will not include that many three-point attempts. But part of the reason they've been shooting that many threes is the fact that they haven't been able to get their usual offense on track in those games; Iowa relies on getting out in transition and scoring easy buckets and making a lot of 2-point shots to make their offense hum. Michigan State and Ohio State both did an excellent job of locking down Iowa's transition game and forcing them to play a more half-court game, which led to some struggles.
It's a good thing Michigan isn't a lethal shooting team from deep --
/looks at stats
...oh. So, yes, I'd say that's a weakness that Michigan can definitely exploit. But the reality is that Michigan did a pretty good job of flummoxing Iowa's defense in the first encounter between these two teams and scored a pretty healthy 1.14 points per possession in that game; Iowa's defense hasn't changed a whole lot since then so I'm not terribly convinced that they're suddenly going to be able to lock down Michigan's offensive threats in the game on Saturday. I'm more concerned about Iowa's offense getting sorted out than I am the defense, though. The defense will do what it's going to do and especially against an offense as potent and efficient as Michigan's, I don't really expect them to stifle them entirely. But the offense needs to rediscover its rhythm and its own efficiency again for Iowa to have any hope of winning this game -- or win any other big games remaining this season.
After this weekend's game, Iowa still has three tough road games left at Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan State. Do you think the Hawkeyes can sweep those games and stay within striking distance of a conference title?
Oh, you'd like a little more elaboration than that? Okay. Weirdly, Iowa has played a bit better on the road than they have at home so far this year, although that hasn't always resulted in that many road/neutral-court victories this year. They played well for about 38 minutes against Iowa State in Ames (and very bad in the other two minutes), dominated long stretches of the Villanova and Wisconsin games and obviously came up with a very impressive win over Ohio State in Columbus. But they've also played the majority of their most difficult games away from home so far this year; until the recent visits from Ohio State and Michigan State, the toughest opponent to visit Carver-Hawkeye Arena was probably Minnesota. Or Northwestern.
Anyway, I don't think they can win all three of those games -- the opposition is too good and Iowa has been a bit too streaky in B1G play for me to have that much faith in them. The game in East Lansing looks extremely difficult at this point; Iowa almost never wins there anyway and it looks like Michigan State might be fielding a full-strength squad by the time that game rolls around -- which would be mildly terrifying. Neither Minnesota nor Indiana are as good as Michigan State (obviously), but they're certainly good enough to spring an upset at home, especially if their shots are falling from deep (see: Wisconsin at Minnesota or Michigan at Indiana -- sorry).
How do you see the rest of the Big Ten season playing out? Who wins the conference, who makes the tournament, and what teams make the most noise in March?
ROSS: I think Michigan and Michigan State have put enough distance between themselves and the rest of the baying mob in the Big Ten that it would take a tremendous collapse by both teams to let someone else into the conference title picture -- and I don't see that happening. So the title race is between those teams and I'd still favor Michigan State, even though Michigan did notch that very impressive win over Sparty in East Lansing a few weeks ago. Michigan State appears to be getting healthier and a full-strength Michigan State team is certainly the best team in the Big Ten, in my opinion; the fact that a depleted Spartan team made it through the first half of league play at 8-1 is an impressive accomplishment. Granted, if Michigan is able to take the second game against them later this month (in Ann Arbor) that might be an insurmountable lead for them to overcome, but right now I'm pegging MSU to win that game.
I'll say that Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin also make the tournament, with Indiana and Minnesota on the bubble to get in. At least one of those teams will get in, maybe both... gun to my head, I think I'd take Indiana at this point. Losing to Northwestern at home is still somewhat mystifying (although it's less of a terrible loss, given the surprising quality of the Wildcats in B1G play), but they do have nice resume-building wins over Wisconsin and (especially) Michigan. As far as who makes the most noise in March... a healthy MSU team is a very legitimate Final Four team. With everyone else, I'd say it depends quite a bit on matchups. But I think Michigan's offense is strong enough to get them into the Sweet 16 and Ohio State's defense -- coupled with an offense that looks less "cover your eyes and pray" over the last few games -- will get them into the Sweet 16 as well. I think one more Big Ten team will also make the second weekend of the tournament and I'm going to use my homer powers to say that Iowa gets some favorable first weekend matchups and rides those into the Sweet 16.
In the first matchup between these two teams, Michigan had one bench player (Zak Irvin) outscore all of Iowa's bench. How important is bench scoring for the Hawkeyes and what players should Michigan worry about most the second time around.
ROSS: Great point. Bench scoring is enormously important for Iowa. College basketball pundits -- as well as Iowa fans and even coaches -- love to cite Iowa's depth, but that depth needs to be scoring points, grabbing rebounds, dishing assists, etc. When Iowa has been at their most effective this year, the second unit has been nearly as prolific as the starters -- that's a team with meaningful depth and a team that's extraordinarily difficult to defend. The return of Josh Oglesby at the start of Big Ten conference play has given Iowa a valuable shooting option off the bench (he's averaging around 6 ppg and shooting 46% from deep in B1G games), but they've struggled to find reliable weapons off the bench. Zach McCabe was shooting well enough in the non-conference portion of the season to be an effective floor-stretching 4 (41% from deep) but he's gone very, very cold in B1G play (24%). Jarrod Uthoff looked like he was emerging as a serious offensive weapon for Iowa earlier in the season (he had double-digit points in six straight games), but he's quieted down lately (12 points on 5/17 shooting in the last four games combined). The best weapon for Iowa off the bench lately has been Gabe Olaseni, a high-energy post player who's averaging 11.3 ppg and 8 rpg in his last four games. He definitely provides a spark to Iowa when he's on the floor and I'd say that he needs to be able to do some damage against Michigan's front court for Iowa to have a decent chance at winning this game.
How do you see this game playing out? Does Michigan once again control the tempo and win thanks to an efficient fast break or does Iowa turn the game into a track meet and run the Wolverines off the court a la 2012?
ROSS: My faith in this Iowa team has been shaken by the home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State the past few weeks. I still think this is a good Iowa team, but the last two losses have shown that they can get knocked out of their preferred rhythms and when that happens, they've struggled to find a successful Plan B on offense. My suspicion is that Michigan will do everything they can to slow Iowa's transition game (I've seen several teams in recent games abandon offensive rebounds to give them an opportunity to get back and set up their defense and stymie Iowa's transition offense) and if that happens I don't know that Iowa can generate enough offense to win this game. Iowa's offense relies on transition and getting to the free throw line; Michigan will try to take the transition game away from Iowa and they're already very good at not sending opponents to the free throw line. I'm also nervous of Iowa slowing down Michigan's many, many weapons on offense. I would like to say that Iowa shrugs aside their recent home court struggles and gets a much-needed signature win... but I just don't have enough confidence in that actually happening.
Michigan 75, Iowa 70