Golden Gophers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes

5:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

TV: Big Ten Network

Tickets: Row 16, behind the basket, upper deck

You won’t hear many Gopher fans say this, but I want the Hawkeyes to be better. I want Carver-Hawkeye arena to be full and loud and an intimidating place to play. I want Fran McCaffery to transform the Hawkeyes. I don’t want Iowa in the Big Ten cellar or a national embarrassment. I want to worry that the Gophers will lose when they play the Hawkeyes. In short, I still want my rivalry back. I want the Hawkeyes to win every game that isn’t against the Gophers, so when the Gophers beat Iowa, it ruins their season, and isn’t just an inevitability.

College sports, particularly Big Ten basketball, needs rivalries to be successful, and the Gopher – Iowa rivalry was one of the biggest and nastiest there was. The NBA doesn’t need rivalries like college basketball. All the NBA needs is two good teams for a big game. There are an awful lot of games between ranked teams in the non-conference season, but they don’t get the attention of the average fan like a showdown between two teams within driving distance that really hate each other.

The worst part of the collapse of the Iowa Hawkeye basketball program during the failed Todd Lickliter Era is that I don’t even hate Iowa anymore.  I was amused when it became obvious the Lickliter was out of his league and Iowa could no longer compete. I was sad after watching the Gophers play in Iowa City and seeing a barely half full arena and hearing nothing but the ball bounce on the court. Bad basketball and bad teams aren’t good for anyone, and it has left the Gopher – Hawkeye rivalry on life support. Only Fran McCaffery can save it.

Things have not gone smoothly in Fran McCafferey’s first season at Iowa, and this wasn’t unexpected. While Todd Lickliter favored the most boring style of basketball anyone has implemented in the shot clock era, McCaffery has instituted his relatively up-tempo system that has led to an average of six more possessions per game. However, the vast majority of players were not recruited to play this brand of basketball.

The Gophers will obviously enter Sunday’s game with some momentum after picking up their first top 10 home win in over a decade, though a let down after a big win is always possible. The win over Purdue was sparked by a remarkable offensive performance. Minnesota scored 1.209 points per possession against the second best defense in the country. It was the best offensive performance by the Gophers this season and the best offensive performance against the Boilermakers by anyone since Purdue lost to Michigan two years ago. The Gophers were successful especially because they took the first good shot available and rarely ran down the shot clock except in the final few minutes. The team is usually a lot more tentative and often times seems afraid to shoot. Hopefully the green light to shoot early will only add to their confidence.

Iowa averages a measly 1.04 points per possession, which is a little above average, but terrible in the Big Ten. They rank 104th in the country in scoring efficiency and last in the Big Ten. Indiana, which has the second worst offense in the Big Ten, 1.09 points per possession, and ranks 57th in the country. For a bit of perspective of how futile their “offense” is, they are bookended by IUPUI and Hofstra in the offensive efficiency standings. It isn’t that they are particularly bad at anything except turning the ball over way too often (21.7% of possessions) and free throw shooting (64.5%) shooting. They are just very average, compared to all 345 Division I teams, and being average compared to everyone means you generally aren’t good enough to compete in the one of the best conferences.

The Hawkeyes are actually a little better than the Gophers on the defensive end, at least statistically, giving up .925 points per possession. They have a unique ability to corral a lot of steals (ranking 63rd in the country) and still managing to keep their opponents off the free-throw line (third in the country in preventing free-throws). They defend the three point shot a little better than shots on the inside. Everything else is average.

Iowa is led by junior Matt Gatens, who is the lead for the Jess Settles is he ever going to leave award. He has admirably bounced back from a ligament tear in his hand to lead the team in scoring with 13.2 points per game. Bryce Cartwright runs the show offensively. The point guard transfer from Fresno State is the only other Hawkeye scoring in double figures at 11 points per game and leads the team with 4.6 assists per game and 34% of the teams assists while he is on the floor which ranks 40th nationally. Unfortunately, he also commits 3.1 turnovers per game and can play out of control more than his coach or teammates would like to see. Who needs feast or famine when you can have both? He had 13 assists and 9 turnovers when Iowa played Northern Iowa and Iowa State earlier this year. Eric May was one of Iowa’s few bright spots a year ago scoring 9 points per game as a freshman. He has added less than a point per game to his scoring total this year, but is stealing the ball much more often and is a real threat from the outside shooting 46% from three. Melsahn Basabe is the most intriguing freshman in the Big Ten, and the best that doesn’t play for Ohio State. He averages 9 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. He nearly led the Hawkeyes to an upset of Ohio State with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 rebounds. He’ll be one to watch over the next three years. Jarryd Cole rounds out Iowa’s starting line-up, but don’t expect him to play much if he can’t stay out of foul trouble. He has played only 22 minutes per game and has collected 4 fouls six times so far this season.  While on the court, he averages an efficient 7 points and 6 rebounds per game.

Iowa is still bad at only 7-9 on the season, but they are getting better. Hopefully Fran McCaffery can turn the team around and give us all a reason to hate again.

Who to watch for the Gophers:

Al Nolen played 39 minutes against Purdue and looked absolutely exhausted at the end of the game. He didn’t participate in the post-game press conference because he was in the training room. The senior co-captain has struggled with asthma and fatigue throughout his career and still has pain from the near stress-fracture in his foot. It’ll be interesting to see how well he can bounce back against after such a tough game.

What to watch for the Gophers:

How early can they put the game away. The big key to avoiding a let down is to eliminate the possibility early on. An early double digit lead would put a lot of people at ease, and hopefully give Nolen a rest. If the Hawkeyes can hang around, like just about every other team the Gophers have faced, fatigue could be an issue.

Who to watch for the Hawkeyes:

Eric May was the lone bright spot for Iowa against the Gophers last season scoring in double figures in both games. They’ll need the deceptively athletic forward to do it again to beat Minnesota.

What to watch for the Hawkeyes:

Do they push the pace against the Gophers? Minnesota has thrived when they have played up-tempo, and any defensive advantage that Iowa has could evaporate if the Gophers get some easy baskets.

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