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Iowa Basketball Q & A

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RossWB from Black Heart Gold Pants gives us some insight on this surging Iowa team

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Want to know a little more about the Hawkeye team the Huskers are playing tonight? RossWB from the SBNation site Black Heart Gold Pants has given us some depth on what type of team Nebraska will face in Iowa City along with his projection on what will happen. Follow him for updates on twitter at @RossWB

What were your expectations of the basketball team going into this season?

I thought this would be a good Iowa team, but I wasn’t sure how good they would be. I knew that they were losing their best player from a year ago, Aaron White, as well as a key back-up (Gabe Olaseni, who was named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year last season) and that replacing those guys would be difficult. But I also knew that Iowa would have a very experienced team this year -- they returned four seniors (Jarrod Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell, and Anthony Clemmons), plus a junior (Peter Jok), all of whom had played extensively and/or started for multiple seasons. Depth beyond that veteran core was a question mark and how well Iowa could evolve their style of play (with White and Olaseni Iowa had one of the tallest teams in the BIg Ten and they relied a lot on dumping the ball into the paint and scoring or getting fouled) were big question marks for this season. With all that factored in, entering the season I thought Iowa would win around 20 games and be an NCAA Tournament bubble team. My expectations are a bit higher now.

Let’s take a look at the inner workings of the team. What does Iowa do well and what do they need to improve upon?

This is a very balanced Iowa team, one of the best that Fran McCaffery has had during his tenure at Iowa. They’re playing at a high level on offense (13th in the country in offensive efficiency) and defense (26th in the country in defensive efficiency). The offense has been a slightly bigger surprise than the defense because they’re such a good shooting team -- their effective field goal percentage is 54.1% and they’re especially good from distance this year (39.8% from 3-point range). 3-point shooting has been middling-to-poor for most recent Iowa teams, so that’s a big turnaround.

The two areas where Iowa is weakest this season are rebounding and free throws. They’re OK at getting their own misses (they’re hauling in 31.9% of them, 126th in the country) but they’ve struggled to prevent opponents from doing the same (opponents are grabbing 32.1% of their missed shots, which is 239th in the country). This Iowa team also isn’t very good at getting to the free throw line overall -- they rank just 320th in the country there. That puts a lot of pressure on their jump shots to fall; if they’re not falling, Iowa can struggle to score points.

While there were a couple of early season losses including a heart breaker against Iowa State, the team has come around and turned into a Big Ten contender with wins over Michigan State and Purdue. What do you think the Hawkeyes can attribute this to?

The easy answer is that those painful early season losses -- all of which were winnable (Iowa had leads late in many of those games) -- provided added motivation for Iowa and they’ve used that added motivation to fuel their improved play. They’re practicing -- and playing -- harder and smarter to avoid having to feel the way they did after those stinging losses. I think they’re also playing with more confidence now after experiencing a little success and that’s helping them take (and make) better shots now.

Iowa’s offense has also been performing at a more consistent level in the recent wins -- in the earlier losses, Iowa’s offense went into prolonged scoring droughts that dug the Hawkeyes holes from which they could never escape. In their win over Michigan State they did a much better job of answering Michigan State’s scoring bursts with points of their own. They did find themselves on the wrong end of a large deficit against Purdue (19 points), but they used some swarming second half defense to pull themselves back into the game.

What is the ceiling for the team? How far can they go?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the ceiling is for this team -- they keep finding improving game after game and forcing me to re-assess my expectations for them. Before the season began I thought they would win around 20 games, make the NCAA Tournament, and bow out there after a game or maybe two. But then the last week happened and they knocked off #1 Michigan State (albeit a Denzel Valentine-less MSU) and staged a tremendous comeback to beat Purdue in West Lafayette. So now the ceiling seems a bit higher. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Iowa can contend for a Big Ten title -- or at the very least a top-4 finish. They’ve already beaten two other contenders and recorded a win at West Lafayette, one of the three toughest road games they’ll face during conference play -- which gives them a leg up on the other contenders. Making the NCAA Tournament should be the bare minimum of postseason expectations. Ultimately their success in the NCAA Tournament may be determined by their draw, but based on their form this year (and especially recently) I think there’s a real chance that they can challenge for a Sweet 16 spot.

Let’s get to the players. Who should we be watching for on Tuesday night?

The main weapon for Iowa this year is Jarrod Uthoff, who’s having an absolutely phenomenal senior season. He’s an incredibly unique player -- a 6-9 big with incredible wingspan who’s just as comfortable shooting behind the arc or attempting a turnaround jumper as he is posting up an opponent -- and he’s leveraging all of his skills well this year. He’s averaging 18.1 ppg (on 49.7% shooting, including 45.2% shooting from 3-point range), 6.0 rpg, 1.2 apg, and an incredible 3.3 bpg. He’s just an incredibly versatile and talented player that can hurt a team in multiple ways.

Behind Uthoff, Iowa’s main scorer is Peter Jok, who’s averaging 13.5 ppg on 40.4% shooting. He’s Iowa’s main 3-point shooter -- he’s attempted 72 this year, making 35.5% of them. He’s also averaging 3.4 rpg and 1.8 apg, as well as 1.4 spg -- he’s gotten increasingly effective at jumping passing lanes and forcing turnovers and turning those into easy transition buckets for himself (or teammates).

Finally, Mike Gesell is also having a very strong season for Iowa at the point guard position. Gesell, technically from Nebraska (South Sioux City), is Iowa’s third-leading scorer (9.1 ppg) and he’s been much improved both from outside and at finishing near the rim. But where Gesell excels is in the passing game -- he’s averaging 6.7 apg and doing an excellent job of running Iowa’s offense and getting good looks for teammates. He’s the engine that runs the Iowa offense.

Has McCaffery and his staff been a good hire overall for Iowa?

Absolutely. As fans, you always want more -- if you’re finishing in the top half of the Big Ten, then you want to finish in the top four and be contending for league titles. If you’re making the NCAA Tournament, then you want to be making trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond. That’s just the nature of fandom. So, sure, there are levels of success still to be achieved for Fran & Co. at Iowa -- and hopefully they reach them. But it would be absurd to be dissatisfied with the results so far. Iowa was one of the worst teams in the Big Ten not all that long ago, a team devoid of excitement, energy, and hope. Under Fran, they’ve steadily improved, made trips to the NCAA Tournament (and won a game there) and been able to compete with (and beat) some of the best teams in the Big Ten. Iowa basketball is in a good place right now and that’s certainly an immense credit to the work that McCaffery and his staff have done in their six years at Iowa.

Prediction time! What will happen against Nebraska?

There are no gimme games in the Big Ten and there’s certainly some risk of Iowa having a letdown game after two thrilling wins over Michigan State and Purdue… but I’m certainly not expecting Iowa to lose at home in this game. Iowa has played very well at home this year and I expect them to put together a few big runs in each half to pull away for a comfortable win. Iowa 76, Nebraska 63