By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
On Wednesday, the Hawkeyes took Wisconsin to double overtime before suffering a devastating four-point loss. It was devastating not because there’s any real shame in losing at Wisconsin – the Kohl Center is one of the toughest places to go get a win – but for the forgone benefits of a huge Big Ten road win in early February, and what that would have meant for Iowa’s flailing at-large prospects. Now the Hawkeyes essentially have no margin for error. Losing at home to Northwestern Saturday would, for all intents and purposes, destroy any remaining Tournament hopes. Rest assured Fran McCaffery’s team will be up to bat, and the Wildcats, who won in Iowa City last season, will be eager to sustain the peerless offensive execution exhibited in the Purdue game last week.
Iowa’s Big Ten Progress
Of Northwestern’s six Big Ten losses, It’s hard to argue that Iowa’s steamrolling at Welsh Ryan Arena back on January 13 wasn’t the worst. The Hawkeyes stayed home on the Wildcats’ Princeton backcuts, dominated the glass and used freshman Aaron White to bludgeon NU with dunks and easy put backs inside. The end result was a 20-point win, and if you watched any or all of that game, you would have left with a pretty optimistic take on this year’s Hawkeyes.
And when Iowa followed up with a four-point home win over Wisconsin six days later, McCaffery’s team looked to be hitting its stride, just in time for a big road trip to Ohio State. That’s where the fun ended. The Hawkeyes lost that game, lost at Purdue shortly after, and slowly unraveled the progress built up from that two-game win-streak with an ugly four-of-five losing skid. That’s where the Hawkeyes stand Saturday: losers of two in a row, Tournament aspirations on life support, needing a tidy finish to even broach the bubble conversation.
Key Matchup: Aaron White vs. Alex Olah
Last time Northwestern saw Iowa, White didn’t just control the painted area with solid defense and even better offense. He broke the Wildcats’ backs with a multitude of demoralizing dunks, and outplayed Olah so thoroughly that Bill Carmody gave the freshman big man just 11 minutes of playing time, by far his lowest total in conference play (and just two minutes above his season low). It has been an up-and-down season for Olah. Every so often, he flashes excellent vision and creativity out of the high post, dropping crisp passes to backdoor cutters, rolling and screening with direction and assertiveness and perhaps most importantly, using his monster frame to backdown opposing defenders and finish on the block. But all of that good doesn’t come without a near-equal serving of frustrating decisions and customary first-year growing pains.
The mistakes have diminished as the season rolls along, and he’s begun to realize his potential on both ends of the floor. Olah’s recent trajectory has been more positive than negative. Don’t get me wrong: Olah has his flaws – his offensive game needs fine-tuning, he could attack the backboards more often, his individual defending needs work and he still, for whatever reason, does not dunk the basketball – but his gradual development over the course of this season is undeniable. Carmody joked about that last point at practice the other day, but if Olah hopes to match White’s intensity on both ends, it may take a few throwdowns to get him going. White had his way with Olah last time out, and the result was predictably regrettable. Since then, Olah has elevated his game in several respects. Matching and eclipsing White’s post play will be a challenge, and Olah is better-equipped to handle that challenge now than when these teams first played.
Prediction: Iowa 76, Northwestern 68
In two home conference losses this season, the Hawkeyes gave Indiana and Michigan State everything they wanted and more, but wound up losing by a combined seven points. Carver-Hawkeye is no safe-haven for Big Ten road teams – ask Tom Crean or Tom Izzo. Once they get things moving in their building, a booming crowd at their back, the Hawkeyes are awful tough to slow down. Unless the Wildcats deflate Iowa’s home energy with an early run, keeping up with the Hawkeyes – and staying calm and composed in a brutal road environment – is going to be massive burden for a Northwestern team that, for all the offensive promise displayed in the Purdue game, hasn’t been very efficient scoring the ball this season. The Wildcats will keep it close, and on a neutral court, I’d be inclined to pick Northwestern. In Iowa City, with a hungry Hawkeyes team looking for a cathartic beatdown after a disappointing midweek loss – I’m sorry, I just can’t.
*For more on Iowa’s individual players, check out our preview from the first matchup