Ross from the incomparable Black Heart Gold Pants and I exchanged questions ahead of tonight's top 15 matchup in Iowa City. My responses will be up over there later. (Update: Here they are.) I'm in bold below.
So, like, when did you guys get good at basketball? We knew Fran McCaffery had the program on an upward trajectory, but what's the biggest factor in the team going from NIT participant last year to potential national contender this year?
Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.
Sorry, I thought you were asking me about my favorite Daft Punk song.
The biggest factor in Iowa's surge this year has probably been the improvement on the offensive end. The defense has improved in most categories, but only slightly; Iowa had a very good defense last year (aside from a few games where it broke down badly). But the offense has gone from an outfit that tended to score a lot of points without really shooting well (46.6 eFG%) and really struggled from deep (30.5 3FG%) to an offense that scores a lot of points and shoots well (52.6 eFG%), even from deep (37.7 3FG%). I don't think there's been one single thing that's made Iowa shoot better this year; rather it's a collection of a lot of little things -- most guys are shooting a bit better (not terribly surprising, given that Iowa returned the vast majority of its team from 2012), the improved long-range shooting has helped space the floor a bit more, and point guard Mike Gesell continues to evolve into a better overall facilitator for the offense, to name a few. All of those things combined have made Iowa's offense very difficult to slow for an entire game.
On offense, Iowa presents the dual threat of being both tall (#3 in average height) and fast (#3 in offensive possession length). How do they pull that off? When opponents have held Iowa's scorers in check, what's been the key?
Iowa pulls that off by having a team primarily comprised of long, rangy dudes. Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni, Jarrod Uthoff, Melsahn Basabe, even Roy Devyn Marble... it's a team full of Plastic Men lookalikes. I think it's fair to say that height and length are traits that McCaffery prioritizes in recruits. There was some consternation among Iowa fans (myself included) about the lack of a beefy, space-eating big in the mold of countless Big Ten power forwards of yore, but if guys like White and Basabe don't have the brawn of more traditional B1G 4s, they counter that by bringing quickness and leaping ability that those same more traditional 4s can't match. Based on the results, Fran's plan seems to be working pretty well. Iowa just attacks teams with a roster full of greyhounds instead of a few pit bulls down low.
Teams that have kept Iowa from running have primarily done so by stifling Iowa's transition game and forcing them to be efficient in half-court offensive sets. Northwestern managed this in the first half of their game with on Saturday; they avoided turning the ball over and they basically abandoned all pretense of going after offensive rebounds -- on most shots, there were already 3-4 Northwestern players heading back down the court after a Northwestern player launched a shot. And it worked pretty well -- Iowa was up just 30-24 at halftime and couldn't get their transition game going at all. Of course, it didn't work all game; Iowa scored 46 points on Northwestern in the second half (although they never did quite get the transition game rolling entirely; Iowa had just two fast break points all game).
So yeah: slow down Iowa's transition offense and force them into a half-court game, keep them off the offensive glass (Iowa rebounds 38.6% of their misses and gets a lot of points off put-backs and second chance opportunities), and keep them off the free throw line (Iowa averages 29.7 attempts per game, one of the best rates in the nation). That's probably the blueprint for beating Iowa. Michigan is probably the team that's executed it most effectively; Iowa lost games to VIllanova, Iowa State, and Wisconsin earlier in the year more because of second-half defensive breakdowns (and/or coach meltdowns) than they did because of offensive struggles. But Michigan genuinely gave Iowa's offense fits, largely by following the blueprint noted above.
This is also a very deep Hawkeye roster, with up to 11 guys getting significant playing time. Tell us about one or two players we may not have heard of who could be difference makers Tuesday night.
I'm going to assume you guys have heard of the Cakebros (H/T @HS_BHGP) Roy Devyn Marble (Michigan native, Iowa's leading scorer, best player on the team) and Aaron White (ginger dunking phenomenon, Iowa's second-leading scorer, and the other best player on the team). The interesting thing about Iowa having such a deep roster of talent to draw on is that while most games tend to feature Marble and White as more less constant fixtures in the box score, there's an ever-rotating cast of guys serving as the Robins to their collective Batman. Against Northwestern it was British import Olaseni (14 points, 10 rebounds in 17 minutes). Against Michigan it was Basabe (17 points, 6 rebounds). Against Minnesota it was sharp-shooter Josh Oglesby (17 points on 5/7 3-point shooting, 3 rebounds). Against Ohio State it was Basabe (11 points, 10 rebounds in 18 minutes) or Mike Gesell (11 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) or Jarrod Uthoff (10 points, 2 rebounds). Or... you get the idea.
So yeah: there are a lot of guys that have stepped up alongside White and Marble. Gun to my head, though, I'd say the guys to watch are Oglesby (shooting 58% from 3-point range this year, albeit in a fairly limited sample -- he's only attempted 12 3s this year because he missed the first 12 games of the season due to a foot injury) and Basabe (who's played his best lately in Iowa's biggest games; see those performances against Ohio State and Michigan, although he was a bit of a non-factor in the latter game). I think Iowa is really going to try to leverage their big man duo of Olaseni and Adam Woodbury (20 points, 16 rebounds combined versus Northwestern) with Payne out of action for this game.
The defense (KenPom #19) is looking nearly as formidable as the offense (#5). Hawkeye opponents are taking a large percentage (38%) of their shots from three-point range and not making many of them (28%). Is that a function of a lot of zone defense or something else? What's the overall approach on defense?
Iowa switches defenses a fair amount, most commonly going from a pretty tight man-to-man defense to a 2-3 (or 3-2) zone at times. Iowa also likes to press on defense, switching between half-court, three-quarter court, and occasional full-court looks during the course of a game. I don't think McCaffery is particularly dogmatic about one type of defense over another, although he prefers man-to-man (Iowa plays man about 70% of the time and typically switches into a zone defense to counter something from the other team; their zone defense has been very effective, though). Iowa's good long-range defense is probably a function of a few things: the defenders do a solid job of rotating on defense and they do a good job of waving their long, lanky limbs in opponents' faces and affecting their shots. I think Iowa's tempo and prolific offense also plays a factor in opponents' poor long-range shooting -- Iowa's been able to seduce a lot of teams into running up and down the floor with them this year and hoisting quick shots, while Iowa's offense has also been so efficient this year and so good at building leads that they've often forced other teams into taking rushed, poor shots when they get the ball back. Oh, and plenty of good luck, too. Iowa's also benefited from opponents just clanging a lot of open looks from deep.
Stepping back, where are expectations for your fanbase at this point? What does the team need to accomplish before the end of the season for Hawkeye fans to sleep soundly over the summer?
I think it's still a little hard for Iowa fans to separate the obvious, apparent quality of this team from Iowa's 8-year NCAA Tournament drought. By which I mean that this looks like a Sweet 16 team by several different standards: traditional stats, advanced stats, the eye test, etc. And yet I'm not sure there's a "Sweet 16 or bust" feeling with this team -- at least not yet. It's going to be enjoyable just to be back in the NCAA Tournament and I don't think Iowa fans are taking that for granted. Hell, BHGP has existed as a going concern for roughly 7 years now and we've never been able to cover an Iowa game in the NCAA Tournament before. Barring an ungodly collapse, that unpleasant streak should come to a well-deserved end this year. That said, if this team continues to play the way they've been playing so far this year and picks up more big wins in the second half of the year, expectations are certainly (and deservedly) going to get raised. Just making the tournament isn't going to be enough to make people happy -- they'll need to win a game or two. Right now I'd say making the Sweet 16 would make this a pretty satisfying season for Iowa fans.
Iowa hasn't lost a game at home this season and hasn't won there by less than ten points. How confident are you going into the game? Hazard a prediction if you are so inclined.
I feel better about this game than I did before the season began, partly because of how good Iowa has looked over the first 20 games of the season and partly because, frankly, this is just one hell of a banged-up Spartan squad right now. Getting Michigan State without Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne (and with a hobbled Keith Appling) is unquestionably a significant boost for Iowa's hopes of winning this game. It's unfortunate for the Spartans that they're not at full-strength, but Iowa needs to take advantage of that fact and get this win. There will likely be other chances to square off with a full-strength MSU team (later this year in East Lansing, for instance, and perhaps in the Big Ten Tournament as well). I also feel confident because Iowa has looked very strong at home this year, although Michigan State is also by far the best team Iowa has played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena so far (the next-best opponent Iowa has played at CHA is probably... Minnesota). This is the biggest home game Iowa's played in several seasons and I think the players (and fans) will be very energized for this game, leading to a strong Iowa performance out of the gate. I expect Michigan State to have a run or two of their own in the game, but I think Iowa will pull away in the second half for a 76-68 victory.