Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE
At long last the Huskers and Hawkeyes will get their basketball on. Here's a conversation before the conversation during the game. Happy Saturday!
Hello there Husker fans! Today, we finally get to see the Huskers and Hawkeyes meet on the hardwood. The schedule makers thought it was a good idea to have these two teams wait until the last five games of the season for these two to play two games. The the weather makers decided to scare the decision makers into making us wait two more days. Remember, Nebraska, this is our rival. RIVAL! Last year, the two teams split road wins. This year, the Huskers are finding their way with a first year head coach. The Hawkeyes, with Nebraska native Mike Gesell, are lingering on the outskirts of the bubble, needing a late season surge to make that leap. Both fanbases are excited for the future of their programs. This week, in preparation, RossWB over at Black Helmets, Gold Pants exchanged a few questions for answers. You can find my ramblings on Husker hoops right here. What follows are the replies of Ross. Treat him kindly, he seems a decent fellow.
1. Fran McCaffery is in year three. Having not paid a ton of attention to Iowa basketball before last year, from this perspective, it appears that Iowa is on the rise, is that the case?
Yes, definitely. Three years ago, they were 10-22. Two years ago, they were 11-20. Last year, they were 18-17. This year they're 17-9 with at least six games to go. Things are definitely looking up for Iowa basketball, especially on the heels of a strong recruiting class last year. Iowa ended a 6-year postseason drought last year by making it to the NIT. This year they still have a chance to end a 7-year NCAA Tournament drought, which would be a big step for the program. Hopefully much better days are ahead, but things are certainly improved from the dark days of a few seasons ago.
2. If the roles were reversed, and the Huskers were headed on the road to play the 11th place team with an opportunity to stay on the bubble, this is a game that they'd absolutely lose. What's the excitement level in Iowa City, or is there more a sense of a pending let down?
I would say the mood is more like "nervous anticipation." Everyone knows that Iowa has a very narrow path to bubble consideration for the NCAA Tournament and part of the gameplan for keeping that path open involves beating the teams they "should" beat -- and the 11th place team in the Big Ten is certainly a team they "should" beat. But I don't think anyone is under any illusions that the game is going to be a cakewalk -- Iowa just played a road game at Penn State, the undisputed worst team in the conference, and was hanging on for dear life at the end. Nebraska is better than Penn State and you guys have given better teams than Iowa a real scare (like Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State). So a win on Saturday isn't going to be easy. A loss would be crippling for Iowa's NCAA hopes, so that alone has people nervous, but I think people are excited, too, since a win lets us keep the NCAA tourney hopes alive for a little bit longer.
3. Husker fans will be lamenting letting Mike Gesell, and to a lesser extent, Adam Woodbury, get away for years to come. Now that we're almost a year into their Iowa careers, what is their role on the team both this year and going forward? They know they're going to get treated like traitors on Saturday, right?
I know Gesell was a Nebraska kid (technically), so I can see where him leaving for greener pastures in Iowa could be considered a little traitorous to you guys. But Woodbury? Really? You guys know Sioux City is in Iowa, right? Iowa's had a steady pipeline of Sioux City kids in basketball and football the last few years -- Brandon Wegher (although that story didn't have the happiest ending), Brennan Cougill
(er, ditto), Zach McCabe
, and Michael Malloy.
Anyway, they both seem pretty entrenched as starters this year, and I expect them to stay there for the next three years, too. Gesell has bounced between the starting point guard and starting shooting guard roles and is currently back at point guard. Woodbury has (obviously) been the starting center. Both guys' stats have tailed off a bit in Big Ten play, but Gesell is still Iowa's third leading scorer (9.1 ppg) and tied for second on the team in assists (2.8 apg). Woodbury is down to 5.0 ppg and 5.2 rpg, but he provides a very solid defensive presence when he's on the court. I expect both guys to continue to improve and become the lynchpins for this Iowa team over the next few years.
4. Heading into the game, the Hawkeyes sit at 17 wins and just a game under .500 in conference play. With two games vs. Nebraska and one vs. Purdue, Iowa would appear to be on the bubble. It looks like they've made their living on the bottom half of the conference except for the win over Wisconsin. Do they need to at least split the Indiana and Illinois games to keep their dancing dreams alive or just take care of business vs. the Huskers and Boilermakers plus perhaps one in Chicago to get there?
I think they need to go 4-1 in the regular season at minimum and win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament -- possibly two. You hit the nail on the head -- they've made a living on the bottom half of the conference. Their Big Ten schedule was backloaded with winnable games and, to their credit, they're winning them, but they're taking the volume approach to NCAA consideration: 22 wins overall, 11 conference wins, based on my earlier projection. That looks good... until you actually look at those wins. Their best non-conference wins are Iowa State and UNI. Their best conference wins are Wisconsin and Minnesota. They don't have a marquee win to their credit. Their RPI is weak (in the 70s, as of this writing) and their non-conference schedule was abysmal. All of that is hurting their bubble candidacy. They definitely need that win over Illinois (it would be another good win, although not a great one) and they might need a win in round two of the Big Ten Tournament (they aren't going to get any boost from whoever they play in round one) to really be able to breath easy. Suffice to say, there's a lot of work left to do.
5. Break it down. What happens this afternoon?
Iowa's trend has been to get off to disastrous starts in games; I'd like to see that change, but I'm not exactly confident that it will. But I think Iowa will mount a comeback and the game will be close -- within 4-5 points -- at halftime. I think it stays pretty close down to the wire, but Iowa makes their free throws down the stretch and wins 66-58.
Well, there you have it. Thanks to Ross for giving us the skinny on the Hawkeyes. Enjoy the game. Consider this your game thread.