Who: 13-8 (4-4) Iowa Hawkeyes
When: 7 ET (ESPN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Now that National Signing Day is over, it's time to talk actual sports action again. Michigan's tournament chances are slim, yes -- and realistically non-existent with the ongoing absence of Derrick Walton (and, of course, Caris LeVert) -- but for a currently 6-4 Wolverines squad, a win tonight at home against an Iowa squad on a three-game losing streak is a must for keeping up the pretense of a shot.
Iowa emerged from the nonconference slate with a 9-4 record, taking losses against Texas (by 14), Syracuse (by 3), Iowa State (at home by 15) and Northern Iowa (a 12-point loss in Des Moines). None of those are "bad" losses, as even Syracuse, despite having gone 2-3 in its last five, didn't look too bad earlier in the season.
Outside of a weird loss to South Carolina, Iowa State is once again a very strong team, and UNI, while a Missouri Valley Conference foe, sits at 21-2 (10-1) right now -- they can play. With that said, losing to ISU and UNI in consecutive games the week before Christmas cannot have been good for the team chemistry of Iowa's holiday get-togethers.
With that said, Iowa started the Big Ten schedule with a bang, notching a road victory at Ohio State on Dec. 30, then handling Nebraska at home. After being dropped by 14 in East Lansing, Iowa got back on the winning track, scoring a win at Minnesota, then beating the Buckeyes again for the season sweep.
Things went south from there, although much of that has to do with scheduling. Iowa played Wisconsin twice in less than two weeks, first at the Kohl Center on Jan. 20, a game they lost 82-50. The sequel at Carver-Hawkeye Arena didn't turn out much better for the Hawkeyes, as the Badgers edged them 74-63.
Sandwiched between those losses was a trip to West Lafayette. Despite vastly ourebounding the Boilermakers, Iowa lost by four, going 4-for-17 from beyond the arc in the process.
So, here we are. How much of the recent struggles can be attributed to, simply, playing Wisconsin twice? Some of them probably can be, but not all. A 32-point loss against anyone is a poor statement, and following that up with a double-digit loss at home is a disheartening thing for an Iowa team that started 4-1 in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes got off to an electric start last year, appearing poised to challenge for the Big Ten crown, particularly after that thumping they gave Michigan at CHA. Since then, however, it's been more bad news than good for the Hawkeyes on the hardwood.
Unlike Michigan, a tournament berth is an actual possibility, given the lack of injuries to key players. With that said, at 4-4, the Hawkeyes will start to run out of time if they can't pick up a few of "winnable road game" variety wins (of which Michigan qualifies as, these days).
With Devyn Marble off to the NBA, Aaron White has picked up the No. 1 scorer banner for Iowa, averaging 15.0 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game. He's still not a stretch-4 (29 percent from three), but what he lacks there he makes up for inside the arc. Like Jordan Morgan used to do for Michigan, White is a major threat in transition; White, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward, runs the floor with the best of them.
Fellow forward Jarrod Uthoff also packs a scoring and rebounding punch (11.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg). The onetime Wisconsin Badger -- can you imagine if he was still in the rotation in Madison? -- from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is their most effective three-point shooter (37 percent).
Junior Mike Gesell is back to run the show at the point (7.3 ppg, 3.5 apg). If a healthy Walton were playing, maybe Michigan could've used this matchup to negate its sizable disadvantage in the frontcourt, but, alas, that's not in the cards for Michigan.
Adam Woodbury starts at center, but backup Gabriel Olaseni gets almost equivalent run there. At 7-foot-1 and 6-foot-10, respectively, that's pure size for which Michigan doesn't really have an answer -- but, that's not a new storyline. Olaseni has more offensive skill, but both can rebound the ball, something Iowa continues to do well. Iowa is first in the Big Ten during league play in offensive rebounding percentage (as often seems to be the case, however, they're actually fairly bad on the other end, where they're dead last in DRB%).
Peter Jok gets the start at the other guard spot (6.2 rpg). He's a 33 percent shooter from three, which came in handy during the win at The Barn, in which he scored 13 on 5-of-8 from the field (3-of-5 from three), his best showing in league play.
Guard Josh Oglesby was a 40 percent shooter from three last season. This year? Just 27.5 percent, and his scoring is down from 6.6 to 3.7 ppg. Obviously, this is all just a running gag to lull Michigan's defense to sleep for the purposes of this single game -- well played, Oglesby.
With the departure of Marble and the disappearance of Oglesby's outside shot, this isn't quite as powerful of an offense as we saw early on last Big Ten season -- with that said, Iowa still comes in 4th in points per possession during Big Ten play, which isn't too shabby.
- Attack the basket. Seeing guys like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman attack the basket has been a sight for sore Michigan fan eyes, which watched an almost entirely perimeter-based offense earlier in the season, even with LeVert in the mix. Now, Michigan hasn't exactly turned into a Kentucky dribble-drive offense just yet, but the freshmen's willingness to take it to the rim and "pay the price," as they say in hockey, is a skill that could prove useful in a game like this. Get Woodbury out of there early and that gives Spike Albrecht et al vastly more space to dribble around.
- Find White on the break. This should be a team effort, but whoever is tasked with checking White needs to be ready to do a little running. While his game might not extend beyond the three-point line, he's an active big. In any case, Michigan is going to be at a serious disadvantage at the 3-5 spots on the defensive end. Michigan needs to hope that Ricky Doyle has another Syracuse-esque game and at least one of the two forwards doesn't get obliterated by White/Uthoff.
- Strong start. After a difficult overtime defeat in East Lansing, Michigan badly needs a strong start. Zak Irvin played 41 minutes on Sunday, Albrecht played 37 and Dawkins logged 35. Three days in between games is probably enough recovery time, but if not, there's nothing better for heavy legs than an energized crowd. Figure in the fact that Iowa has recently taken two drubbings (again, against Wisconsin, but still lopsided nonetheless), and a strong start might allow Michigan to take a decent lead into the half that they can nurse to a close win in the second.
I look at the matchups in the frontcourt and see nothing but trouble. Michigan has no response for Iowa's size and skill there, which Fran McCaffery's squad has in both quality and quantity.
If LeVert and Walton were playing, however, Michigan would have had a strong advantage in the backcourt (this might have been said in every pre-injuries preview I've written this season). Unfortunately for Michigan, neither will play, so they've got what they've got.
And, what they've got was enough to push Michigan State to overtime. The increased playing time is giving guys like Dawkins and MAAR a chance to grow, minute by minute, which is a silver lining in what has been a disappointing 2014-15 campaign.
Michigan's 6-4 record looks ho-hum on the surface, but it is somewhat of a miracle they've won as many games as they have, not to mention taking both Wisconsin and Michigan State to overtime. That is what you call the Beilein Effect at work.
I've been generally pessimistic in this section, but for whatever reason I feel like Albrecht, Irvin and the freshmen will bring a strong performance this evening. Ricky Doyle hasn't been much of a factor since the Jan. 10 win against Minnesota (12 points, 5-of-8 shooting, six rebounds), but something tells me he holds his own against the experienced Iowa bigs. Michigan 64, Iowa 62.