08 February 2010

Countdown to Northwestern at Iowa

Northwestern (16-7, Big Ten 5-6) travels to Iowa City to take on Iowa (8-16, 2-9) at 7:35PM Central on Wednesday February 10. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network and radio coverage is on wgnradio.com.

Iowa leads the series 107-52 though things have been more competitive of late as the two teams have split the last ten games. Last year each team defended its homecourt. Iowa is coached by Todd Lickliter who is in his third season with the Hawkeyes after adding to the impressive Butler Bulldog coaching lineage.

Preseason expectations for the Hawkeyes were about as low as they can get. There was much talk among Big Ten coaches about how tough the league was top-to-bottom. Most people just assumed there would be an asterisk next to these statements when put into print with the fine print saying, "Iowa Hawkeyes not included."

The low expectations were a symptom of the fact that Iowa had lost most of its personnel from an already unimpressive outfit in the 2008-09 season. It turns out that Lickliter has his Hawkeyes playing harder and more competitively than anyone imagined possible. That is not to say that Iowa has made some kind of miracle breakthrough this season. Their conference victories come against the other two teams generally considered as fellow bottom-tier teams, Indiana and Penn State.

Iowa resembles Northwestern teams of the not-so-distant past. The Hawkeyes have a hard time filling the hoop and like to take the air out of the ball. Therefore most of their games are low scoring (Iowa is last in the Big Ten scoring 57 PPG) and somewhat closer than one might expect given their talent deficit (they lose by 8 points on average to Big Ten foes -- not good but not so bad relative to preseason expectations). Oftentimes the Hawkeyes appear to be frustrating their more talented, more athletic opponents. The Hawkeyes have been close to getting some decent wins but have yet to get over that hump.

Sophomore Matt Gatens and Freshman Eric May are the Hawkeye iron men as both are averaging about 35 minutes per game. Sophomore Aaron Fuller joins these two as an offensive threat though none of them average more than 11 PPG in conference play. Former NU recruiting target Devan Bawinkel is now a senior and can shoot the rock from distance at a 40% clip.

What to expect? The old adage that it is difficult to win on the road rings true. The Wildcats are clearly the better team and should win this game. But Iowa may keep it interesting given 1) their style of play (notably, they lead the Big Ten in 3FG% defense), 2) the game is at The Carver, and 3) NU may be peaking ahead to its biggest game of the year on Valentine's Day against Minnesota. We expect NU to prevail, but NU fans may no longer be as bullish about the Wildcats as they are right now after two comfortable home victories.