After two defeats against Wisconsin and Michigan, Northwestern resumes Big ten play on Thursday night against an Iowa team without its head coach, but with a roster loaded with talent.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was suspended by the Big Ten following a referee-directed outburst during Sunday’s game at Wisconsin. But that won’t make Northwestern’s job much easier. This is the best team the Hawkeyes have put on the court in quite some time, and at the very least, this version compares favorably to the best of the Steve Alford.
As for Northwestern, the strength of this year’s Big Ten has made for a merciless schedule. Coach Chris Collins and company aren’t even halfway through a harsh six game stretch at the onset of the conference slate. And Thursday’s game in Iowa City is one of their tougher tasks.
Ken Pomeroy ranks the Hawkeyes (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) 13th in the nation, and the general consensus is that they are the fourth best team in the Big Ten. Their three losses have been by a combined 12 points (one coming in overtime against Villanova) and all three have come away from home.
What will be particularly difficult for Northwestern will be coping with Iowa’s size and length. To put it in simple terms, Iowa’s second shortest starter, star guard Roy Devyn Marble, is taller (6-foot-7) than all but one of the players that make up Northwestern’s starting five.
G Dave Sobolewski 6-1
G JerShon Cobb 6-4
F Drew Crawford 6-5
F Sanjay Lumpkin 6-5
C Alex Olah 7-0
Northwestern’s projected starting lineup is above. Compare that with an Iowa squad that goes 10-deep, and you’ll recognize the mismatch. Here is a list of the Iowa players, along with each player’s height:
G Mike Gesell 6-1
G Roy Devyn Marble 6-6
F Melsahn Basabe 6-7
F Aaron White 6-9
C Adam Woodbury 7-1
G Anthony Clemmons 6-1
G Peter Jok 6-6
F Zach McCabe 6-7
F Jeremy Uthoff 6-9
F Gabriel Olaseni 6-10
Northwestern hasn’t yet encountered a team of this ilk. The closest comparison is Stanford, whom the Wildcats handled well for the first 20 minutes, but poorly for the second 20. It’ll be up to Crawford, Cobb and Lumpkin to play through and around the Hawkeyes’ length. If that length bottles them up though, it could be a long game for NU, especially on the offensive end.
In addition, here are some other things to watch for:
- The Three-Point Arc – One of the staples of this Iowa team’s success this season has been their ability to get the ball to the rim on offense – their refusal to settle for jump shots – and, on the other end, to keep opponents away from the rim – they force their opponents to settle for jump shots. The Hawkeyes attempt just 25 percent of their own shots from beyond the arc, yet they make opponents take 38 percent of their shots from long range. Northwestern must buck one of these trends – that is, it either must keep Iowa out of the paint, or the Wildcats must find a way to get in there themselves when they have the ball – if it hopes to win on Thursday night.
- Player Rotation/Playing Time – We are now 15 games into the season, and 15 games into Collins’ tenure at NU, and the new coach hasn’t yet settled into a groove when it comes to player usage. Players’ minutes, especially the non-starters’ minutes, have fluctuated incessantly. And nobody better embodies that than Kale Abrahamson. The sophomore forward has seemingly raised his level of play as of late, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into increased opportunities on the court. It’ll be interesting to see if a spike in playing time finally comes tonight for the Iowa native in his home state – and if it does, even more interesting will be to see how he responds.
- Letdown? – For Iowa, this game arrives on the back of a disappointing loss at Wisconsin, a contest that the Hawkeyes led at halftime by double-digits. And this upcoming weekend, they’ll travel to Ohio State. Additionally, despite all their talent, this isn’t an Iowa team that has experience navigating the upper tier of the Big Ten like they’ll do this season. It’s entirely possible that the Hawkeyes, without their head coach, look past Northwestern, in which case the Wildcats could sneak up on their opponents. But even then, it would still take a tremendous Northwestern performance to knock off a top-25 team on the road.