On Sunday afternoon, for the first time since 2006, the Golden Gophers will face a ranked Iowa Hawkeyes team in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In January of 2006, the Hawkeyes led by Pierre Pierce, beat the Gophers 66-60. Eight years and four combined head coaches later, what was once a great rivalry is beginning to have meaning again. Rivalry games always matter, within the context of a rivalry. Beyond bragging rights though, no one particularly cares when mediocre teams from neighboring states battle to prove which team is a little less horrible. This year, Iowa is a contender for a conference championship, and the Gophers have a chance to prove they should be involved in that conversation too.
Iowa is one year removed from just missing the NCAA tournament after a disappointing and not particularly challenging non-conference season. While Iowa had only semi-impressive non-conference wins over Xavier and Notre Dame, their willingness to play better teams, along with close losses to Iowa State and Villanova, should be enough to get back to the NCAA tournament barring a total disaster in conference play. With each week that goes by, anything resembling a disaster becomes less and less likely. The Hawkeyes are 3-1 with a road win at Ohio State. The improvement that began half-way through last season continues a year later.
Size matters in college basketball, and Iowa, being the fourth tallest team in the country has plenty of it. Few teams in college basketball can trot out a team with no player shorter than 6’5”, but Iowa does it semi-regularly. Even when they play “small,” they feature four players taller than 6’5” along with a 6’10” center. The Hawkeyes are the third freakishly tall team the Gophers have faced this season. While Syracuse and Florida State act like their tall, often playing slow and feasting on rebounds, Iowa plays like a small team that just happens to occasionally use a 6’6” guy as the primary ball handler. They love to get out and run, with offensive possessions lasting an average of only 14.2 seconds, the third quickest in the country. They commit very few turnovers while recording assists on 60% of made field goals. They play tall too, of course, pounding the ball inside, and rarely have their shots blocked. Their fast paced, oversized offense has truly been elite. Their 1.19 points per possession ranks fourth in the country.
Most of the buzz about Iowa focuses on their offense, and deservedly so, but their defense is ignored at their opponents peril. In conference play, the Hawkeye defense has been the second best in the Big Ten. There aren’t many gimmicks, and their success isn’t predicated on forcing turnovers. They simply keep the ball out of the basket. With their size, Iowa is able to contest more shots that smaller teams simply can’t. Their defensive possessions are the 27th longest in the country. It takes longer to find what looks like a good shot. Often, those shots aren’t that great, and Hawkeye opponents have the 9th worst three-point shooting percentage and the 17th worst two-point shooting percentage.
Scoring is truly a team effort for Iowa. Fran McCaffery plays 11 players at least 13 minutes per game, and 10 score and average of five or more points per game. Roy Devyn Marble, their leading scorer, will be a match-up nightmare for Andre Hollins, who will need to defend the much taller Hawkeye senior, and will have to find a way to shoot over him. Aaron White is a lanky slasher, a lot like Austin Hollins should play be, but has five inches on the elder Hollins. Freshman Jarrod Uthoff is a normal sized power forward at 6’8”, has great instincts and will probably make Oto Osenieks look silly pretty often.
If the Gophers have one advantage, it will oddly be on the inside. While Iowa’s back court size is significant, their more productive centers are 6’10” and 6’7″ and on the skinnier side. Adam Woodbury, their nominal starting center, is 7’1” but hasn’t yet learned to use his size. If the Gophers have any chance of beating the Hawkeyes, they’ll have to find a way to score down low, where they are not at a significant size disadvantage.
The Golden Gophers entered this stretch of four games against ranked teams hoping to win just one. They’ve already done that. Sunday’s game against Iowa is the most difficult game left on the schedule. If they can do the unexpected, they’ll have earned a national ranking and will sit alone at third place in conference play. Even if they don’t win, they’ll still be ahead of schedule, and firmly in contention for an NCAA tournament bid two weeks in the Big Ten season.