Chris Johnson is a Big Ten correspondent and RTC columnist. He filed this report from the United Center Thursday night. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
A scorching hot start from Iowa teetered on the verge of a huge blowout. Northwestern fought back to make the final score, 73-59, a respectable season-ending finish. The Hawkeyes will advance to Friday’s quarterfinals to face Michigan State. Here are three quick takes from Iowa’s opening-round win.
- Iowa Is On A Bubble Mission, But Don’t Tell Devyn Marble That. Other than top-level seeding implications, and maybe Indiana’s locational preferences, the most intriguing outfit heading into the Big Ten Tournament this weekend was Iowa. Why? The Hawkeyes exist on the crest of the bubble tipping point. Their postseason fate, more than any other team in Chicago, will be decided based on what they do in the Big Ten Tournament. Beating Northwestern won’t put the Hawkeyes over the top – Iowa still owns that prohibitive 319th-ranked non-conference schedule, a few ugly losses and a short supply of good wins to make up the difference. One more big chip – hello, Michigan State quarterfinal opportunity – might just get Fran McCaffery’s team safely into the field. For his part, McCaffery is satisfied with where his team stands in the at-large picture. “To me, I am very comfortable with our resume right now. I think we deserve to be in,” he said in the postgame press conference. McCaffery even name-checked his team’s impressive “KenPom” rankings (The Hawkeyes own a top-25 efficiency defense and rank 30th overall in Pomeroy’s system) to back up Iowa’s credentials. His case is a valid one; Iowa has been weighed down, perception-wise, by a confluence of poor non-conference scheduling and the national spotlight of the upper reaches of the Big Ten. But the nitty gritty RPI-dominated facts are the facts that matter – not the reality-based efficiency facts McCaffery referred to – and those facts say this: Iowa probably needs to beat Michigan State tomorrow to make the field of 68.
- The Hawkeyes Can Really Guard. For the first seven minutes of Thursday night’s game, Northwestern approached its halfcourt offense pretty much the same way it has since enduring a host of crippling injuries and embarking on a brutal eight-game losing streak to close the regular season. The Wildcats ran their Princeton sets to exhaustion, settled for threes and middle-range jump shots, and watched the Hawkeyes jump out to an 11-0 lead. Northwestern would crawl back into striking distance, but after Iowa’s punishing opening stretch, the game was effectively won. Iowa did it through defense; they smothered Northwestern’s unconventional offense by keeping every pass, screen and back cut in front of them, getting into passing lanes, harassing freshman center Alex Olah on the catch and obstructing point guard Dave Sobolewski’s play-making ability. The Hawkeyes destabilized Northwestern’s attack from the tip, and the rest was purely clinical (the Wildcats finished 18-of-49 from the field, and just 7-of-22 from three). With zero individual offensive talent to speak of, Iowa’s disciplined team defense forced Northwestern into bad shot after bad shot – during certain stretches, it almost felt like the Wildcats were throwing the ball around the perimeter because there was nothing else to do, akin to a harmless game of hot potato, with no creative direction or immediate solution to be found. Credit Iowa’s defense. Fran McCaffery’s team reduced the Wildcats’ already hampered offense into a rudderless half court enterprise. Read the rest of this entry »