Michigan is feeling good after its 70-67 home win versus #3 Maryland on Tuesday, but the Wolverines don't have time to celebrate. Next on the docket will be one of their most difficult games of the season: a road date with #16 Iowa, who sits atop the Big Ten standings with a 4-0 record thanks to a dominant sweep of #4 Michigan State and a victory over #24 Purdue in West Lafayette.
To gain more insight about the Hawkeyes, I spoke with RossWB, who's a co-managing editor of Black Heart Gold Pants -- SB Nation's Iowa site. For our Q&A, I asked him about whether Iowa fans expected this performance from their Hawkeyes, if Iowa can bully Michigan inside, how much Iowa will harass the Wolverines on the perimeter, and if he thinks Michigan can surprise Iowa with an upset win. Check his answers below!
Iowa had the toughest opening stretch to the Big Ten seasn, needing to face Michigan State twice and travel to Mackey Arena to take on Purdue. Yet Iowa has maneuvered through it with an unblemished conference record and now is the early Big Ten favorite. Did fans envision this was possible at the start of the year? Why or why not?
Only the most irrationally optimistic Iowa fans expected a start to the season like this. Most fans (me included) would have been very content with a 2-2 start, given the challenge of playing Michigan State and playing games in East Lansing and West Lafayette. So to pass that challenge with flying colors... well, it's been spectacular to behold. I think Iowa fans thought this was a good team, but there were doubts after their 1-2 performance at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando and a painful come-from-way-ahead loss at Iowa State. Iowa also had a terrible track record with Michigan State -- 9 losses in a row overall and 18 straight losses in East Lansing -- so it was hard to project wins over Sparty, especially given how good they looked in the early going. This Iowa team has absolutely taken their game to a stunning new level during Big Ten play, though -- their shooting has been fantastic (bar the odd half here or there, like the first half against Purdue) and their defense has really ratcheted up the intensity and become incredibly disruptive. We'd seen glimpses of this Iowa team in non-conference play, but mainly against weaker opponents (and that wonderful first half against Iowa State). To see them put it together like this against legitimately good teams has been incredibly impressive -- and exciting.
In the preseason, there was discussion about whether Jarrod Uthoff could slide into Iowa's lead role, which was previously held by departed All-Big Ten first-team member Aaron White, without any hiccups. Not only has that been the case, Uthoff has been one of the best players in the country, averaging 18.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 3.2 BPG and posting an 119.2 offensive rating. Why has Uthoff flourished in this new role?
Uthoff is using more possessions this year than last year (25.8% versus 20.7%) and taking more of Iowa's shots (30.2% versus 25.3%), but it's not strictly a matter of him getting more touches. His offensive rating has gone up from 113.8 to 119.2 and his eFG% has gone from 50.4% to 55.9% -- even with his increased usage, he's remained an incredibly efficient and effective scorer, too. Outside the numbers, Uthoff simply seems to be playing with increased confidence and assertiveness. There were times in the past when he would seem to disappear from games, especially if his shot wasn't falling -- that doesn't happen much anymore. He's become more active about demanding the ball and taking shots. He understands that a difficult shot for him may still be a better option than a slightly easier look for a teammate, given his scoring prowess. He's always had tremendous physical skills that made him a nightmare to defend -- his incredible length makes it difficult for smaller players to guard him and his long-range shooting prowess and quickness makes it hard for bigger defenders to slow him down, too. If you put an aggressive scorer's mentality in a body with those sorts of physical tools, this is the sort of player you can wind up with. He's an incredibly unique player and it's been a joy to watch him this season.
Teams that have had success against Michigan are ones that have been able to score inside and crash the offensive glass. Though Iowa is 17th in effective height and has a 7-foot-1 starting center, the Hawkeyes appear to be more dangerous from three (15th in 3P%) and not as much of a threat for second-chance points (112th in OR%). Why aren't the Hawkeyes as effective inside? Could they bully the Wolverines in the paint?
It's been a strange development to see Iowa struggle a bit on the offensive glass, since for years that was a huge part of Iowa's game. When guys like Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni, and Zach McCabe were patrolling the paint, Iowa made a living off of crashing the boards and getting second-chance points. White and Olaseni were garbage men par excellence. But they're gone and Iowa wasn't really able to replace them this year; outside of Adam Woodbury (that 7-1 starting center) Iowa's bigs like Uthoff, Nicholas Baer, and Dom Uhl are more perimeter-oriented. There just aren't as many tall, lanky guys crashing the glass and looking for boards. That said, Iowa's offensive rebounding prowess has improved recently and they just came off a game where they controlled the offensive glass against a Michigan State team that doesn't usually let that happen. Iowa pulled down 13 offensive boards against MSU, with Woodbury grabbing four and Uthoff and Uhl each pulling in three apiece. If Iowa hits the boards like that against the Wolverines, I think they could absolutely make life miserable for Michigan in the paint. But that match-up is nowhere near the clear advantage for Iowa that it might have been in recent years. Iowa's definitely a more perimeter-oriented team that is liable to lighting opponents up with jump shots.
Michigan is one of the most dangerous three-point shooting teams in the country. Not only do the Wolverines shoot a high volume of them (14th in 3PA%), few teams make a higher percentage than they do (9th in 3P%). Conversely, opponents have knocked down only 29.6 percent of their threes against Iowa (12th). That percentage is lower against Big Ten foes (27.8 pct.). Why has Iowa's three-point defense been so superb?
Well, there's a bit of luck involved there -- teams are attempting a lot of triples against Iowa this year (37.5% of their field goal attempts, one of the higher rates in the nation), so the fact that so few of them are falling is partially a function of good fortune. But Iowa's defense also does make things difficult for opponents on the perimeter. Iowa's starting guards, Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons, are good about harassing opposing shooters and making it difficult for them to get off good looks (especially Clemmons), and Jok has shown increased defensive intensity this year. That's mainly translated into him playing the passing lanes better and generating turnovers off tipped passes, but he's also gotten better about getting a hand in the face of shooters and making it harder for them to make threes. And Uthoff is also a big factor in Iowa's 3-point defense -- frankly, his combination of length and quickness is a bit of a cheat code. He's able to cover ground on defense incredibly quickly and get a hand in an opponent's face -- or directly on the ball -- at the perimeter. He's averaging over three blocks per game and a stunning number of those blocks have come on three-pointers and other long jumpers along the perimeter. That very unique ability makes things easier for the entire Iowa defense.
KenPom projects that Iowa will beat Michigan, 78-67, on Sunday, and it's very likely that Caris LeVert will miss his fourth straight game. Is there any chance that Iowa will come out hungover after its humongous win at Michigan State? Who wins?
I'm very curious to see how Iowa responds to Thursday night's huge win over Michigan State in East Lansing. They came out a bit flat at home against Nebraska in their first game after the thrilling comeback against Purdue in West Lafayette; doing the same against Michigan and digging themselves a hole could be a bigger issue than it was against Nebrasketball. But that concern is also tempered by the fact that this is an Iowa team laden with experience -- they know how to respond to big wins and they're not likely to get rattled by a slow start if they do struggle at the beginning. So I do think there is a decent chance that Iowa will have to deal with a bit of a hangover on Sunday, but I'm not convinced that it will persist long enough to sink Iowa in this game. My biggest concern is that Michigan has another shooting night like they had against Maryland the other night and Iowa has a few scoring droughts that prevent them from keeping pace with the Wolverines. But I can't pick against this team -- not at home and not as well as they're playing. I think they'll use a second half run to pull away a bit before picking up the win. Iowa 77, Michigan 69
A big thanks to Ross for answering my questions. Make sure to follow him on Twitter!