Nebrasketball is back in Lincoln tonight at 8PM ET against the Iowa Hawkeyes, and I had the pleasure of talking with Harrison Starr, AKA BoilerHawk, of Black Heart Gold Pants about this year’s Iowa team.
Question 1: Who is the one player Iowa needs to worry about on Nebraska? How can they stop him?
I’ve only watched Nebraska’s game at Rutgers and James Palmer, Jr. immediately stuck out as a matchup nightmare for Iowa. I’d expect Nicholas Baer to get the assignment with Ahmad Wagner serving primarily as the backup. In Iowa’s game against Wisconsin, Wagner jumped true freshman Jack Nunge in the rotation so I’d expect that to hold.
While Baer doesn’t have the same lateral quickness as Wagner but he makes up for it with long arms and good positional defense and both are willing to do the dirty work on the defensive side of the floor.
Fran McCaffery will also switch up defenses with regularity and has shown he’ll stick with one if it’s really working. Against Illinois, their 2-3 zone helped spark the comeback victory, especially after the Illini stopped hitting threes. There’ll be a heavy dose of that, especially if no one is lighting the nets on fire.
Question 2: With Iowa’s struggles this season, do you think Fran is in jeopardy of a job next season?
Iowa has been bad this season but unless significant unforeseen transfers hit Iowa hard, it’s tough to envision a scenario where Fran McCaffery isn’t the head coach next year. He’s followed up arguably his best coaching job at Iowa last year with his worst this year but there’s still a lot to like on this roster. Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook have improved upon seasons which saw them voted on the all-freshman team and Luka Garza - Iowa’s freshman center - has shown absolute flashes.
My main criticism of McCaffery is his dedication to an 11-man rotation. With Ryan Kriener and Brady Ellingson out against Wisconsin, it was shortened to 9 but Nunge played only 2 minutes. There was much better cohesion offensively and defensively. We will see if the shortened rotation holds, especially if those two are able to go on Saturday.
Also, after writing this answer, Scott Dochterman of Land of 10 found the cost of firing McCaffery is incredibly prohibitive.
Question 3: Who on Iowa will be the X-Factor for beating Nebraska at Nebraska? Nebraska’s only home loss is against Kansas.
What immediately stuck out when looking at Nebraska’s KenPom page - and backed up by my viewing last night - was just how bad they are on the defensive boards. Though Luka Garza has a varied offensive game and can stretch his range to three, he’s made the biggest impact for Iowa when he crashes the glass. Not only does his offensive rebounding rate rank in the top 25 nationally, but his activity is drawing fouls at an exceptional rate as well.
Tyler Cook also had two low-volume, but efficient, games against Nebraska last year and I’m not sure there’s a power forward on the Cornhuskers who can matchup individually with his athleticism and skill. Beyond those two, I think Iowa is going to need someone to step up from three and think Nicholas Baer is due for a big offensive game.
Question 4: Do you think Nebraska has the potential and talent to make the NCAA tournament?
From my viewing of the Rutgers game, I was struck by the talent Nebraska had on the roster, specifically Palmer and also Isaac Copeland. It does not appear, despite their improved roster from last year, they have enough resume-building wins to get there. Two early conference wins - Minnesota and Northwestern - do not have the same sheen at the time of those wins and their big win over Michigan remains their only one against a high-caliber team.
I’d expect Nebraska to be in the bubble conversation since the end of their conference slate is pretty light but will likely need to win a conference tournament game or two to get them in.
Question 5: Finally what do you think will happen
I think Iowa has some distinct advantages in both shooting and rebounding but Nebraska’s defensive style will cause some early frustration which carries throughout the game for the Hawkeyes. At some point, Palmer will be too much for Iowa to handle and Nebraska will win, 70-62.
Thanks again to Harrison, @HD_starr, and to whomever helped @BHGP give us some insight on this Hawkeyes team. I’m surprised Harrison had Iowa losing by so little, but hey, we’ll see tonight.