For the second consecutive Thursday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers will play on the road against a top-five team. Last week was a loss to Illinois. This week: the Iowa Hawkeyes and National Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza.
Last time these two programs hooked up, it was February 8, 2020 in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes avenged an earlier loss in Lincoln with a 96-72 beatdown. Garza had 22 points and eight rebounds, while Joe Wieskamp scored a (still) career-high 30 points, including 20 as part of Iowa’s 55-point second half.
8:00 p.m. CST/9:00 EST on Thursday, March 4
Iowa City, IA - Carver-Hawkeye Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Play-by-play: Kevin Kugler
Analyst: Jess Settles
Online Broadcast: Fox Sports app & foxsports.com/live
Radio: Learfield IMG College Husker Sports Network, including 1400 AM in Lincoln, 590 AM in Omaha, 880 AM in Lexington
Play-by-play: Kent Pavelka
Analyst: Jake Muhleisen
Online Radio: Available on Huskers.com, Huskers App, TuneIn.com/Huskers, and TuneIn App.
SiriusXM (internet): 973
Line: Iowa -16.5
In a season where the Big Ten is not only the best conference in college basketball, but also historically great, Fran McCaffery has positioned Iowa for a strong regular season finish. The Hawkeyes are ranked 5th in the latest AP poll, sporting an 18-7 overall record, 12-6 in conference play. In his 11th season in Iowa City, McCaffery is poised for his best B1G finish yet, and the best league record for the school since 2005-06.
Iowa scores. A lot. They come into this one averaging 84.7 points per game, 5th-best in the country. Most of that comes from their sharpshooting ability, as they are 3rd nationally from beyond the arc at 40.1%. The Hawkeyes also excel in taking care of the ball and finding teammates for baskets, leading all 347 Division 1 schools playing this season with a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Defensively, Iowa is not so good. While their ugly-looking per-game defensive statistics get skewed due to their faster tempo and high volume on the offensive end, the raw percentages aren’t favorable, either. The Hawkeyes average in the bottom 10% nationally in opponent assists per made field goals at 0.597, and assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.39. Allowing assists and not forcing turnovers plays right into Nebraska’s hands.
That being said, Iowa has performed better on defense as of late. After starting Big Ten play with a 70-55 win over Purdue, they allowed at least 67 points in each of their next 11 games, culminating in a five game stretch where they went 1-4 and allowed 79 points per contest. Since then, they’re in the midst of a six-game run in which four of their opponents have scored less than 67 points. The only loss over that time is to #2 Michigan.
It all starts with Luka Garza. Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year, the All-American has kept his foot on the gas since declaring his return to Iowa, spurning the NBA for one more year in Iowa City. The 6-foot-11, 265-pounder has upped his game in his senior season, becoming more efficient with his scoring by taking - and making - more 3-pointers than last season. He has increased his points per game from 23.9 to 24.3, and his 3-point % from 35.8% to 45.5%, despite playing fewer minutes per game. Garza has seven games with at least 30 points this season, with three coming in Big Ten play and another against #1 Gonzaga.
Garza’s development away from the basket has resulted a dip in his rebounding production, from 9.8 boards per game last season to 8.4 this season. That being said, most college programs would be happy with 24.3 and 8.4 per night, not to mention 1.8 assists and 1.5 blocks per game as well.
Joe Wieskamp is also capable of taking over a game offensively, as he did in last year’s win over Nebraska. Averaging 15.3 points per game this season, the 6-6 junior can make teams pay for paying too much attention to Garza. Look no further than the last Nebraska-Iowa matchup last year when he poured in 20 points in the second half alone.
Senior point guard Jordan Bohannon has been around for a long time, starting 127 games over five seasons in his Iowa career. After taking a medical redshirt last season following hip surgery, his points per game are down from 13.5 his sophomore year to just 9.7 now. Bohannon shoots almost exclusively from deep, where he’s at 38% this season. He also leads the Hawkeyes in assists with 4.4 per game, and is a career 88% free throw shooter.
Garza, Wieskamp, and Bohannon, along with sophomore CJ Fredrick and freshman Keegan Murray, all knock down 3-pointers at a 37% or better clip. Murray is Iowa’s 6th man, averaging 7.0 points and 17 minutes per game. He has also started in place of Fredrick four times in the past ten games, most recently in their win over Michigan State on February 13. Fredrick has missed those four games with a lower left leg injury.
Jack Nunge, a 6-foot-11 sophomore who had played in all but two games in 2020-21, suffered a season-ending torn meniscus in the Hawkeyes’ loss to Michigan last Thursday. Nunge averaged 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Connor and Patrick McCaffery have both played in every game this season. Connor, the older brother and a junior, starts, while the younger Patrick, a freshman, scores a bit more, 4.8 versus 3.8 points per game.
Iowa expected starting lineup (each of the last four games): Garza, Wieskamp, Bohannon, Fredrick, McCaffery (Connor)
Nebraska expected starting lineup (each of the last two games): McGowens, Mayen, Walker, Thorbjarnarson, Webster
Prediction: The Huskers are on a roll, with a two-game winning streak and loads of confidence. Teddy Allen’s departure has not had an adverse effect on the floor. Thor and Kobe have added a spark since they got the Senior Night start against Minnesota, and they kept it going in a big way against Rutgers. The Hawkeyes’ style of play won’t stand in the way of what Nebraska wants to do, which is pass a lot and shoot a bunch of threes. I think you will see Fred Hoiberg’s offense continue to cook.
That being said, Iowa is peaking at the right time. Nebraska could shoot lights out and still come up short - the Hawkeyes are that good and that efficient on offense. Expect a shootout, but not a Husker win: Iowa 88, Nebraska 79.