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Q&A with Black Heart Gold Pants: Is Iowa a contender at the national level?

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NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans have a tough task ahead on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday night. After a 2-4 start in Big Ten play (8-4 overall), the Spartans have very little room for error the rest of the season, but the 11-2 Hawkeyes (5-1 in conference play) enter the game as heavy favorites.

To learn more about what Iowa looks like as a team this season, we spoke to Harrison Starr of Black Heart Gold Pants — SB Nation’s one-stop shop for all things Hawkeyes.

Here is what Harrison had to say regarding Iowa:

1. What can Michigan State do to limit Luka Garza’s effectiveness at the offensive end? Xavier Tillman did a fantastic job with this task last season, but with him now gone, the Spartans seem to be lacking a lockdown defender in the post.

Harrison: Garza has struggled most when teams have been able to throw multiple defenders with capable man-to-man defense. His weakest games have been against teams that have this kind of frontline depth — 6-for-16 shooting vs North Carolina, 11-for-27 at Minnesota, 6-for-14 vs Northwestern. All three teams also threw a number of double-teams at him to keep him off balance, but the Hawkeyes can make defenses pay with that approach. They shot 42 percent from deep against each of UNC and Northwestern, but could not match that against Minnesota, Iowa’s only Big Ten loss so far.

What makes LG so good, as much as anything, is his absolute relentlessness. He overcame his offensive struggles against UNC and Minnesota by being a nightmare on the offensive boards with seven and 11, respectively. If he is struggling down low, he can find his stroke from the three point line like he did against Iowa State (6-for-7 from deep) or Purdue (4-for-8).

What made Tillman so good is that he was able to beat Garza to his spots in the post and build a wall to limit his moves. So stopping Garza starts there. Then the Spartans will need to defend him until they secure the defensive rebound and probably get a bit of luck with him missing makable shots and getting away with contact under the guise of “nothing is easy in the Big Ten.”

The other way to beat him is get him in foul trouble. To the chagrin of pretty much every fan, (Iowa head coach) Fran McCaffery sits guys for the first half when they accumulate two, which can leave Garza on the bench for 10-plus minutes.

2. Garza, and Joe Wieskamp, are obviously the big names everybody knows from Iowa, but who are some other role players who could make a difference on Thursday night? How have players like Joe Toussaint, Jack Nunge or Keegan Murray looked off of the bench?

Harrison: Pretty much anyone who sees the floor brings value for the Hawkeyes. After a very slow start, Jordan Bohannon has caught fire from deep. CJ Fredrick is Iowa’s best perimeter defender and can absolutely fill it up on offense. Connor McCaffery does all the little things and is Iowa’s best post entry passer. By having a guy like Garza who can get 30 on any given night, it makes it much easier for Iowa to find the hot hand on offense as their No. 2 and No. 3 scorers without having to rely on any single guy consistently.

If there’s someone to keep an eye out among Iowa’s starters, it’s probably Fredrick. Iowa fans always want him to shoot more, but he’s incredibly conscious of letting the game come to him. He’s been light in the scoring column the last couple games so it feels like a matter of time before he goes nuclear again.

As for Iowa’s bench, fans cannot get enough of Keegan Murray. He’s been an absolute revelation as a hometown kid and legacy player (his father is Kenyon Murray) who spent a year post-high school at DME in Florida where he improved as a shooter and grew three or four inches. He really does it all, but crucially, seems to be a guy Iowa has been sorely lacking in terms of sheer effort plays. If there is a loose ball, he is going to do everything in his power to get it whether it’s diving on the floor or jumping out of bounds. He’s got a very high ceiling as someone who does not really take forced shots and can defend the one-through-five positions.

Toussaint has been up and down so far this season, but provides a rare speed in the backcourt which is much different than anything else Iowa has offensively. He’s also a very skilled defender. Nunge has been pretty good for much of this season and has seemed to have fine-tuned his offensive role to limit his three-point attempts. He serves as Garza’s primary backup but can also play alongside him. His season got off to an incredibly sad start, with his father passing away unexpectedly, but he has performed admirably.

3. The general narrative about Iowa is often that the Hawkeyes are incredible on the offense side of the ball (currently second in adjusted offensive efficiency margin, according to Kenpom), but porous on the defensive end (currently 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency margin). Is this narrative overblown, or is the defense a general concern for Hawkeyes fans?

Harrison: Yes, and yes.

I’ll answer the second part first: many are concerned with Iowa’s defense because they fear it could be what holds them back in the Big Ten race and from a deep NCAA tournament run. Iowa does struggle at times with 100 percent defensive engagement but seems to be finding a groove with the length and athleticism they can play with off the bench and simply better engagement from the starters who can be prone to starting slow on that end of the floor. However, they’ve done pretty well in conference play, outside of letting Brandon Johnson get loose for 8-for-9 shooting at Minnesota. There will probably be shots for a Spartan to have, as Fran’s strategy is to let an opponent’s worst shooter or two take open shots and simply hope they miss. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

My view is that it is slightly overblown, though. Iowa’s offense is simply so good that many opponents cannot keep pace with it. I also think, from a statistical view, the per-possession numbers are generally favorable to them. If Iowa keeps a team at or below 1.1 points-per-possession, it is typically a winning number, and when they allow that against an otherwise bad offense, it hurts the advanced stats.

4. What is the general feeling from the Iowa fan base on Fran McCaffery and his staff?

Harrison: Fran has always been a coach who can build, at minimum, a very good offense around his best offensive players. Having someone like Garza really supercharges that offensive ability for him. His defensive philosophy flows from offense — easier to defend when you make shots — so he does not consistently out-scheme opponents on that side of the court. I equate him to a junk ball pitcher who will throw a number of different zones alongside man-to-man defense to keep the opponent off balance. This philosophy is not necessarily appreciated by the masses.

He’s coming off his best season, which saw Nunge, Bohannon, and Pat McCaffery miss the season due to injuries and he was able to cobble together a solidly top-25 team. Yet they experienced the oft-maligned “Fran February Fade” which could not be rectified with postseason play. Oh well.

This season, he has avoided his tendency to have super deep rotations, sticking with a core nine guys unless foul trouble or in-game injury dictates otherwise. Some of the lineups he throws out seem silly at the time but look to serve as a bigger purpose than simply winning the game in front of him. One example is he played Murray, Pat, Nunge, and Garza — his four biggest, longest defenders — with a point guard through much of the first half against Maryland. It turned the tide of that game and looks to be a tool for his toolbox, should Iowa need to roll it out in the future.

5. Come the end of the regular season, where do you expect Iowa to finish in the Big Ten standings, and how do you predict the Hawkeyes fare in the NCAA Tournament?

Harrison: I’m both excited and horrified by the possibilities. I have feared some of the expectations among the fan base are simply too high for a team like Iowa to come from relative nowhere and achieve (i.e. Final Four or Big Ten regular season title). However, they do look like they have the mental makeup alongside their talent to finish in the top two or three of the conference and could certainly win it if breaks go their way. As far as the Tournament...I just want to see a Sweet 16, which would be Iowa’s first since I was wearing short pants in 1999. If Iowa advances from that first weekend, I suspect whether they move on from there will be very matchup-based.

6. Who wins and why?

Harrison: I expect this game to be played pretty close for much of the game as I think MSU has the ability to defend Iowa’s perimeter without sending much help to Garza. Outside of playing Iowa’s preferred style of a high-scoring affair which feeds into Iowa’s worst instincts, I think that’s the path to victory for opponents: slow it down and make them grind out possessions on both sides of the floor. However, I expect timely shooting to be the difference and set the Hawks over the top. Something like 79-70.

A huge thank you to Harrison for his in-depth analysis and great thoughts. You can follow him on Twitter, and to keep up with what is going on with Big Ten foe, Iowa, follow BHGP as well.

Sam Tyler answered questions on The Only Colors’ behalf over at Black Heart Gold Pants. Check out his responses.