Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Hawkeyes

This is the part where I'd usually say something like, "oh great it's Iowa, they suck who cares no preview" and then make a classy dismissive wanking motion with my hand, but they just beat Wisconsin in Madison.  Yes, granted Wisconsin is criminally overrated this year, but winning in Madison is tough to do for any team that doesn't have Lawrence Westbrook, so perhaps Iowa is worth investigating further - the team, not the state.  The only thing could in the state is the casino's have craps - get with it, Minnesota).

The reason it was so easy to dismiss Iowa up until that upset was because they had done nothing positive all year and piled up all kinds of negative losses.  The home loss to Campbell by 16, blowouts by Creighton and Clemson, and losses to Iowa State and Northern Iowa had the Hawkeyes looking like a laughing stock but they've started to pull it together in recent weeks having won four of their last five (including that win at Sconnie) with the only loss being a three-point squeaker at Purdue.  So what's going on?

For one thing, the team has become more Fran McCaffery's team than Todd Licklighter's.  Where Lick played at a torturously slow pace, McCaffery actually has Iowa as one of the faster teams in the country.  The season before McCaff took over Iowa ranked 321st in tempo.  Last year he had them at 102, and this year they're all the way up to 40 making them the fastest team in the Big 10 by a considerable margin (besides them only Indiana ranks in the top 100 at #97).

Of course, the key to playing fast is to take care of the ball and/or force your opponent to make mistakes.  Although Iowa remains mediocre at forcing turnovers, just like last year, they have made a marked improvement in taking care of the ball.  The Hawkeyes turned it over on 22% of their possessions last year (255th in the country), and have made a massive positive swing this year, turning it over just 16% of the time (12th in the country).  No Hawkeye averages more than 1.8 TOs per game, and the guards have been excellent - Bryce Cartwright, a TO machine last year with 3.3 per game, has nearly cut it in half with just 1.8 this year (of course his playing time has been reduced as well, but percentage wise he's improved), Matt Gatens is always a rock with the ball but has been exceptional this season with under a TO per game despite handling the ball quite a bit, giving him the 25th best TO rate in the country, while two other ball-handlers (Roy Marble's kid and Josh Oglesby) are also in the top 25.

The Hawks still can't shoot very well and don't play very good defense, but they are awfully good at being smart with the basketball.  Since one of the ways the Gophers have been able to have success this year is by forcing turnovers, this particular statistical match-up will be one of the biggest keys of how the game goes tomorrow.  Of course, that explains why Iowa is better than last year, it doesn't explain what's changed over the last few games to take them from laughing stock to semi-dangerous (not dissimilar to Ronald Miller in the white version of Can't Buy Me Love).

I'm slapping the role of Miller onto Roy Devyn Marble, who has gone from after thought to focal point of the offense, taken a team that was basically completely dependent on Matt Gatens, Melsahn Basabe, and the chuck-o-rama that is Bryce Cartwright and made them a more balanced team that's harder to stop, and has suddenly become the Hawks' best player.  This post from a Hawkeye blog called The High Porch Picnic breaks down Marble's improvement for you in great detail, but essentially he's been on fire shooting, has moved away from the three-pointer and made the mid-range jumper his own, and his team has responded by getting him the ball more often and he's being more aggressive when he has it.  

So now you add an emerging star in Marble (look at these lines:  18pts, 8 rebs, 5 assist vs. Boise; 21/4/5 vs. Iowa State; 17/1/6 vs. Purdue) to the consistently steady Gatens (has averaged betwen 10.8 and 13.3 ppg his entire career) who can do a little bit of everything (12 boards against Sconnie, 20+ points three times this year), and the explosive Basabe (at least 14 pts and 8 boards in each of his last four games; 3 double-doubles this year) and suddenly you have a really nice base of a team.  If they get anything at all from Cartwright (17pts, 5 assists, 1 TO vs. Wisconsin) or the new kid, freshman Aaron White (18 vs. Wisconsin and Boise) and Iowa is a legit threat, as Wisconsin found out.

On the other hand, one big win doesn't suddenly make a bad team good, Iowa got the best game of the year from two players (Cartwright and White), out-rebounded Wisconsin by five, and the Badgers were a stupid flukey 3-28 from three-point line and Iowa still only won by seven.  Not to mention that this team's losses to Iowa State and Northern Iowa both happened post the Roy Marble breakout.  I'm inclined to believe the win at Wisconsin was more a fluky convergence of Wisconsin's worst game of the year and Iowa's best game of the year, and anything similar to this result is likely unrepeatable.

That said, I hate when bad teams have confidence and then get to play a team with a shaky offense and bad three-point defense.  What happens if Iowa gets out to a 9-2 lead?  What if the game is tied with 3 minutes to go?  I don't want to see the results.  Please Gophers, jump out early and keep an 8-10 lead the entire game.  You should be good enough to do that.  Nobody wants the torture, we all want a 20 point blow-out so we can leave early and get home before 11:30.  Please.

Minnesota 81, Iowa 67.

Oh and also go to hell, Iowa.