With the non-conference schedule ending on Dec. 21, it’s a great time to look at what Iowa basketball has coming up in the final 19 games of the Big Ten schedule. With the Big Ten likely to send anywhere from seven to 10 teams to the NCAA tournament, Iowa’s going to have to work for everything it gets if it wants to make another NCAA appearance.
The Hawkeyes shouldn’t have any problems securing a bid to the Big Dance, but they’re going to have a long slog to get through before they make it to Chicago and then their postseason destination. Most likely, Iowa’s going to need at least 11 wins in the Big Ten to get to the conference tournament feeling good about its chances.
Over the remainder of the season, there are a few games that should be circled on Iowa fans’ calendars, because they’ll determine where Iowa finishes in the Big Ten and what kind of seed the Hawks might earn.
Here are the games to keep in mind between now and the Big Ten tournament if you want to watch the Iowa Hawkeyes play in the next weeks.
Dec. 29: At Nebraska
The Cornhuskers might not be very talented, but there are two big reasons Iowa should be concerned about this trip to Lincoln. First, Iowa has a glaring weakness on defense in that it allows teams too many good looks at the hoop. That plays right into Nebraska’s strength because the Huskers rebound the ball well and convert on second-chance points. Second, Iowa has really struggled in Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Hawkeyes have lost four of their past five trips to Lincoln, and they really can’t afford a defeat here.
Iowa does have an edge in Nebraska’s propensity to turn the ball over and allow easy baskets. The Hawkeyes have struggled here, but the reality is that in 2023, the two most manageable trips in the league are Nebraska and Minnesota. Iowa cannot afford to give away one of those two potential wins if it wants to contend for a league title.
Jan. 1: At Penn State
This is one of three matchups Iowa will only play on the road, and it’s a difficult one. Not only has Penn State become a stiff defensive test under Micah Shrewsberry, but the Hawkeyes haven’t played much better at the Bryce Jordan Center than they have in Lincoln. Iowa has lost three of four in Happy Valley, including a double-overtime defeat to the Nittany Lions last year.
Unlike last year, Penn State doesn’t have John Harrar and thus doesn’t have the same kind of inside presence that allowed the Nittany Lions to cash in on second chances. Penn State beats teams by making them work on offense and by hitting deep shots from the outside when the opportunity comes along. That might play into Iowa’s hands, making this a winnable matchup against a good opponent.
The Hawkeyes must get at least one of two on their swing between Lincoln and University Park; getting both would be a big start to 2023. However, there’s a worry here: Iowa’s got to make the furthest trip in the conference after battling Nebraska, while Penn State faces a pushover in Delaware State leading up to this game and won’t have traveled since Dec. 10.
Jan. 15: Vs. Maryland
Maryland is a wild card, a maddening team that’s capable of playing with anyone and capable of losing to anyone. The Terrapins showed what they could be in their Big Ten opener against Illinois with a 71-66 victory, but then they turned around and lost at Wisconsin. Iowa knows full well how tough the Badgers are in Madison, but there was no excuse for the Terps losing by 27 to UCLA.
This marks the only time the Hawkeyes will see the Terrapins, and they have to make the most of the opportunity. They play Maryland at home, and that should give Iowa a slight edge in a tough battle. Maryland tends to fall in love with the 3-point shot, which means Iowa’s perimeter defense will be crucial here.
Jan. 29: Vs. Rutgers
These two teams are basically opposites of each other. Iowa is all gas and no brakes, and Rutgers loves to grind opponents down to a full stop with its nasty defense. The Scarlet Knights will never wow anyone with their scoring prowess, but they made the most of their chances against Indiana in easily beating the Hoosiers by 15 in Piscataway.
This will be the second of two meetings between the Hawkeyes and the Scarlet Knights, so Iowa will have an idea of how it needs to play this game the second time around. A sweep of Rutgers would be ideal as far as contending for the Big Ten title; a split should be the minimum expectation for this series. If Iowa wants to get a bye in Chicago until the quarterfinals, it has to beat out Rutgers for one.
Feb. 9: At Purdue
This is the Big Ten’s ultimate measuring stick, and this marks Iowa’s only shot at the Boilermakers. Purdue absolutely gave away a Final Four appearance last year, as the Boilers should have beaten both St. Peter’s and North Carolina and reached the Final Four. They likely would have lost to Kansas in the final, but they still would have been to a place Purdue has never reached.
That said, even though this game is at Mackey Arena, it’s a winnable contest. The Boilers have a big edge with Zach Edey at center, but he can’t go for the entire game and Purdue doesn’t always have a plan B when he isn’t at his best. Plus, the Boilers give up too many looks at the hoop the same way that Iowa does. The Hawkeyes have to maximize the time where Edey is on the bench and make sure that they cash in on their second chance opportunities.
This game is like the Penn State game: Iowa doesn’t need to have it in order to make it to the NCAA tournament or contend for a Big Ten title, but it would be a major gold star on the resume.
Feb. 12: At Minnesota
This game is the opposite of Purdue: this represents the biggest trap on Iowa’s schedule. Facing Minnesota is something every other Big Ten team wants to do twice this season, and Iowa’s not one of the lucky ones this season.
Still, to make matters worse, this trip to the Barn comes at the worst time of the year. It’s sandwiched right between the game at Purdue and the visit from Ohio State, both of which are going to be important games for the Hawkeyes.
Minnesota’s easily the worst team in the Big Ten this season, but the Golden Gophers still have the potential to be dangerous in the wrong situation, and this is absolutely the wrong situation for Iowa. If the Hawkeyes win at Purdue, they’re going to have just two days to put a road win over a top-10 Boilermakers team out of their minds before facing a rival with nothing to lose. At the same time, they’ll have to keep their minds from looking ahead to facing the Buckeyes at home.
Minnesota might not have many talents, but the Gophers are well-coached and could get hot against a distracted opponent. Iowa has to make sure that it’s focused on the task at hand and doesn’t blow an opportunity to pick up what’s as close as you can get to a free win on the road in the Big Ten.
Feb. 22: At Wisconsin
This wouldn’t have made the list had the Hawkeyes not faced the Badgers on Dec. 11 and lost, but now that they have, Iowa’s got to make up for that setback when it travels to Madison. The Hawkeyes should have won the game in Iowa City, but the defense let them down when they needed a stop.
That game underscored that Iowa’s a little too dependent on its three main scorers. The Hawkeyes lost to Wisconsin because 58 out of their 75 points came from Patrick McCaffery, Connor McCaffery and Tony Perkins.
That’s not going to work moving forward. Payton Sandfort went 0-for-7 against the Badgers, and even though Filip Rebraca scored 10 points, seven shots are too few for him. In two of Iowa’s three defeats, Rebraca has taken seven shots or fewer, and in the loss to Duke, he hit fewer than half of his attempts. Iowa needs Rebraca to take good shots and make them if it’s going to beat good Big Ten teams.
Feb. 28: At Indiana
If all goes well for the Hawkeyes, this game could be a critical one for the Big Ten title race. Two of Iowa’s final three games will be played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but this trip to Assembly Hall is the one road tilt in the season’s final week. Indiana is similar to Maryland: the Hoosiers are a talented but flawed team that’s capable of both big showings and falling flat on its face. There’s one major difference between the Hoosiers and the Terrapins: the Hoosiers have Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Fortunately, this won’t be the last game at home for the Indiana big man, but the reality is that Iowa cannot allow him multiple looks at the basket if it wants to leave Bloomington with a win. Jackson-Davis is too talented inside for the Hawkeyes to get away with that kind of performance.
Iowa either has to force Indiana’s other players into turnovers or make sure that the Hoosiers don’t get more than one look per trip. Allowing Jackson-Davis to dominate this game would be deadly to the Hawkeyes’ chances.
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