Admit it, you haven't seen much of Iowa this year. That's OK! I admit that and more to Ross from the outstanding blog Black Heart Gold Pants and he filled us in on all the details so you don't need to ask. I also answered a couple of Ross' questions that are in this post on their site. Here's the lowdown on the Hawkeyes:
SSF: Okay, I will be completely honest. I have seen about 10 minutes of Iowa basketball this year that did not just happen last night. What's the brief rundown on their 2014-15 campaign?
ROSS: Up and down, down and up. Iowa had a poor trip out east for the 2K Classic in New York City, losing to both Texas (back when people thought they would be really good -- honest!) and Syracuse. Then Iowa went into Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina in the Big 10-ACC Challenge and we all got excited again. Then they got their doors blown off in back-to-back games by Iowa State and UNI and we were concerned again. Starting off the Big Ten season with a 4-1 mark (including a sweep of Ohio State) made those frowns turn upside down, but a three-game losing streak brought back the doubts (even if two of those losses were to a God Mode Wisconsin Badgers team and the third was against Purdue in a game without much Aaron White due to injury). Blowout wins over Michigan and Maryland brought back the good vibes, but things really turned dark when when Iowa lost at home to a middling Minnesota team and followed that up with a loss at Northwestern. Considering that this came almost exactly a year after Iowa had crashed and burned to end the 2013-14 season (losing 7 of 8), some alarm bells definitely started to go off. Then, of course, they followed that up by winning their final six games of the regular season (it didn't hurt that the first game of that streak came against Rutgers, as wonderful an example of a slumpbuster as you're likely to find in the sport). They followed that excellent winning streak up by losing to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, which certainly harshed our buzz. And then, of course, they demolished Davidson in stunning fashion last night.
I think it's fair to say that it's tough to get a read on this team. When they look good, they often look really, really, really good. But when they look bad -- which has happened a little bit too often to be comfortable this season -- they can look pretty awful, too. Thankfully (for us), there's been a lot more really good Iowa of late than really bad Iowa. And we're all hoping we get another game of really good Iowaon Sunday night.
SSF: Since virtually all of my knowledge about Iowa hoops is from last night, it seems like you guys may be the best team in the country and should just play Kentucky right now. Was the demolition of Davidson just another night for Iowa fans or was it just an incredible performance?
ROSS: BRING ON THE WILDCATS! Er, THE OTHER WILDCATS. NOT THE ONES WE JUST BEAT BY 30+ POINTS. Or maybe not. I think the Davidson performance was an example of Iowa operating at almost peak efficiency and playing a team that had weaknesses that aligned perfectly with Iowa's strengths. Davidson is a very small team and one that prefers to play a four-guard lineup; Iowa, on the other hand, is a very big team that likes to play four guys 6-9 or taller (although not all four at the same time). Even Iowa's guards (all 6-2 to 6-6) were taller than their Davidson counterparts. It took a little while for that advantage to really start clicking, but once it did (near the end of the first half and throughout the second half), Iowa just took off and Davidson had no hope. While the headline was obviously the 83 points Iowa scored and the way their offense seemed to score at will in the second half, the defense was just as impressive -- if not moreso. They completely shut down what had been a very potent offense; Davidson entered the game averaging 1.17 PPP, but scored just 0.81 PPP against Iowa, including a truly ghastly 0.69 PPP in the second half. Iowa's length seemed to fluster Davidson's movement on offense and their shooters.
The Davidson performance was indicative of what Iowa can be at its very best... but it was also indicative of Iowa getting to play an opponent that it matched up with very well in many regards. I would be over the moon if Iowa could play like that every game, but unfortunately Iowa won't always play Lilliputian teams like that every game... and even if they did, Iowa still probably wouldn't be as freakishly efficient as they were on offense and defense in the game.
SSF: Fill me in on Aaron White. The solo 13-1 run in the second half against Davidson had me out of my chair in fear. I would mainly like to know about his struggles this season and what he doesn't enjoy matching up against so I can sleep tonight.
ROSS: Does it make you feel better to know that he shot 1/12 from the field against Northwestern earlier this season? In part that was just a flukishly bad performance, but it was also down to Northwestern C Alex Olah doing an effective job of frustrating him with his size and physicality. Penn State's bigs were able to do the same, especially in the Big Ten Tournament game, where White shot just 5/13 (he was able to get to the free throw line 12 times, though, making 10, so he still managed to have a very effective game). So big, physical post players can stymie White a bit -- he's not the best jump shooter (although he's been very good from 3-point range of late, draining 10/17 3s over his last 7 games) and does most of his damage at or near the rim. He's lethal in transition, great at cutting to the rim, very good at getting putbacks, and excellent at drawing fouls. But if you can prevent him from getting good looks near the rim, then you can definitely slow him down. (Well, probably -- White has been on the best streak of his career over Iowa's last 8 games, with three double-doubles and six-straight 20+ point performances, so I'm not sure I want to put any limits on him at this point.)
SSF: Judging by the numbers, it looks like one of Iowa's best attributes is its performance on the glass. What makes Iowa such a solid rebounding club, particularly in the physical Big 10?
ROSS: It's a fairly obvious statement, but it's also fairly true -- Iowa's size plays a key role in their rebounding effectiveness. As I said earlier, Iowa regularly gives big minutes to four players 6-9 or taller: Aaron White (6-9), Jarrod Uthoff (6-9), Adam Woodbury (7-1), and Gabe Olaseni (6-10); White, Uthoff, and Woodbury all start, while Olaseni comes off the bench (and was Sixth Man of the Year in the Big Ten). Having guys that size lurking around the rim (though Uthoff spends a lot of time out near the perimeter also) gives you an advantage when it comes to snagging missed shots. But White and Olaseni in particular just seem to have that knack, or innate sixth sense, that really good rebounders have: they know where the ball is going to be and are able to position themselves accordingly to snatch the rebound. Outside of Uthoff, Iowa's bigs are all more traditional post players, too -- they want to be in the paint and near the bucket. You're not going to find them hanging out near the three-point line and pretending to be stretch fours anytime soon (although White is not a complete stranger out there -- as mentioned, he's made 10/17 3s over his last 7 games).
SSF: As I have made clear, my Iowa knowledge in general is poor and that stretches to the state's rivalry situation. Are Hawkeye fans ecstatic that they may have had the best opening round performance of the tournament and Iowa State looked like they had just found out what basketball was?
ROSS: Absolutely. And, honestly, as big as that particular in-state rivalry is for Iowa fans (and it is a big deal), the schadenfreude we took out of seeing Iowa State get stunned by UAB on Thursday was dwarfed by the joy we felt from watching Iowa trounce Davidson on Fridaynight. That's not to say that Iowa fans don't relish schadenfreude (we do! Oh, we most certainly do) or enjoy seeing Iowa State get knocked down a peg or three... it's just that seeing Iowa win an NCAA Tournament game had been a long, long, long time coming. BeforeFriday night's win, Iowa hadn't won a game in the tourney since March 2001. That was a 14-year itch that was just begging to be scratched. Frankly, the novelty and good vibes of just being in the NCAA Tournament haven't completely worn off -- aside from a "First Four" appearance last season (which is a real NCAA Tournament appearance according to the NCAA, but doesn't always feel that way) Iowa hadn't even been a part of March Madness since 2006.
In the time between NCAA Tournament appearances, Iowa hit crashed out of relevance and into program-worst territory. When Fran McCaffery arrived at Iowa five years ago, season ticket sales had plummeted and the team had averaged 19 losses a year over the three previous seasons. Things didn't immediately improve upon his arrival -- Iowa went 11-20 -- but there was real, tangible progress. Iowa made the NIT in his second season. Then they made it again in his third season -- and went to the NIT Championship Game. Last year they made the First Four. And this year, well, here we are. So for Iowa fans just playing Davidson in a game in the NCAA Tournament was a big deal; winning the game -- and winning the game like that, where most of the second half was a delirious, tension-free march to victory -- was incredible catharsis after the lows the program has seen in the not-so-distant past. So, yes, Iowa fans are definitely ecstatic -- but Iowa's win is the ice cream sundae there. Iowa State's loss is just the cherry on top of that particular sundae.
SSF: Lastly, what is your prediction and what is the one major thing that has to happen for your prediction to come true?
ROSS: My heart says damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead with a homer-iffic pick for the Hawkeyes; how could it not after Iowa produced one of the most enjoyable basketball performances I've seen in years on Friday night? But my head tells my heart to slow its roll because this match-up is not nearly as favorable as Davidson was -- that size advantage Iowa had on the Atlantic 10 champs is going to be non-existent against Gonzaga, while the Zags seem to have a variety of offensive weapons and seem adept at scoring inside and out. I also know that the odds of Iowa playing as brilliantly as they did against Davidson are not very high. I see this as a fairly close game and I see both offenses having a lot of success, but ultimately I think the variety of weapons that Gonzaga has will be a bit too much for Iowa to handle and the Zags will pull away late. Gonzaga wins, 77-69.
Thanks again to Ross from BHGP!