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Preview: Iowa at Northwestern

I don't think I need to mention what happened when these two teams last met, but if you're suffering from amnesia or just started following Northwestern basketball in the last two weeks (in which case you picked a pretty bad time to do so), here's what happened. It was a crushing blow to NU's NCAA hopes at the time, and since then Penn State and Wisconsin have completed the knockout, eliminating the 'Cats at-large hopes and leaving the Big Ten tournament as the only ray of NCAA hope. Tonight, Northwestern welcomes Iowa to Welsh-Ryan Arena in their final Big Ten home game of the season. Tip-off is at 6 PM central on ESPN for some reason, with Bob Wischusen and former Illini player Stephen Bardo on the call. I'm been a big fan of Bardo's work ever since a game a few years ago when Mohammed Hachad made a nifty fake-behind-the-back pass lay-up, and Bardo exclaimed "Hachad showing he's got some junk in his trunk with that move!" Would have been great to see the fall-out if a white broadcaster said that. Anyways, on to the game.

Since we last saw Iowa, they have only played twice, really struggling at Purdue in a 63-40 loss, and suffering a heart-breaking 80-78 overtime loss at home to Michigan, a game the Hawkeyes led by 5 in the final minute of regulation. They didn't play last weekend and have had 8 days to prepare for Northwestern. After the jump, we'll take another look at the Iowa roster and tell you what to look for tonight. You can read my preview of the first meeting here.

Iowa beat Northwestern last game with a balanced offense that saw four players score in double figures, but I thought the key player for the Hawkeyes was point guard Cully Payne, who finished with just 5 points. While he didn't do much scoring and struggled from the foul line at 2 for 8, he had a team high 6 assists and just 2 turnovers. Bill Carmody went with the 1-3-1 trap for much of the game, hoping to force the typically turnover-prone Payne into a bunch of miscues, but the freshman handled the traps well and consistently found the open man. One player he set up nicely was 3-point specialist Devan Bawinkel, who hit 5 of his 8 attempts from distance. Bawinkel truly is a statistical oddity; he still hasn't attempted a field goal from inside the arc this year, nor he has gotten a single offensive rebound.

Northwestern also had a tough time handling the frontcourt combo of Aaron Fuller and Jarryd Cole, as the duo combined for 26 points and 18 rebounds. Fuller in particular may pose big problems tonight, as he's coming off a monster  game vs. Michigan when he blew up for 30 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs. I'm a big fan of his game; he reminds me of Michigan State's Draymond Green, except without Green's passing ability. Were Fuller on a better team, he'd constantly receive praise for his toughness and be much better known, but he remains in relative obscurity in Iowa City.

Speaking of tough players, Matt Gatens certainly falls into that category. He led Iowa with 16 points last time vs. NU, and leads his team in scoring on the season at 12 points per game. He's also coming off a season high 21 point game against Michigan. Gatens is a solid shooter at 36% from three and 85% from the line. Overall he shoots just 37% from the field, but that's a function of having to force up a lot of tough shots late in the shot clock, as Iowa is a bit short on guys who can create their own shot. He's a dangerous player and the heart and soul of his team.

Also watch for promising freshman Eric May (who is deceptively athletic; read: an athletic white guy), rotund freshman Brennan Cougill (who may look like he belongs in a YMCA league but can knock down top of the key threes), and diminutive freshman and coach's son John Lickliter aka Li'l John (who has seen his minutes decline recently).

As for tonight's game, I don't see any way Bill Carmody could be stupid enough to play a lot of 1-3-1 given how badly Iowa destroyed it last game. As mentioned earlier, he used it last time because he hoped Northwestern could force the Hawkeyes' young and turnover-prone backcourt into a lot of turnovers, which did have the potential to succeed. But Payne broke the trap with ease, so unless Carmody has completely lost his mind, he'll go to the match-up zone exclusively, and hopefully even throw in some straight up man to man. I'd also like to see him use full court pressure, as Iowa has often had trouble with a press this season, plus even if Iowa breaks it, they usually won't try to score in transition. So there is a lot of upside with minimal downside.

When Northwestern is on offense, they shouldn't have too much trouble scoring. Despite Luka Mirkovic having maybe the worst game of his career in Iowa City,  and Drew Crawford getting in Carmody's doghouse for poor defensive play and being benched for long stretches, the 'Cats still scored over a point per possession. Look for Mirkovic to continue his trend of playing much better at home than on the road and use his height advantage to score inside (and let's hope he's been practicing his free throws after that debacle vs. Penn State). Also look for John Shurna to continue to fill it up, and for Michael Thompson to bounce back from a poor performance in Wisconsin. The spread right now is NU -9, and while that's a fair amount to give, I think Northwestern bounces back tonight, hopefully on their way to a strong regular season finish.

Northwestern 73, Iowa 60

I can't say it would surprise me too much if Iowa won this game, but I'm thinking the 'Cats can build on their strong second half at Wisconsin and break this game open in the second half. See everyone tonight for the game thread.