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Leistikow: How Iowa can navigate a rigorous road ahead and win a Big Ten basketball title

Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

The calm is nearly over. Here comes the storm for the Hawkeyes.

Seventh-ranked Iowa’s basketball season thus far has mostly been a warmup for what’s ahead, starting with Friday’s 8 p.m. matchup at No. 22 Illinois.

Iowa stands 12-3 overall and second place in the Big Ten Conference at 6-2 (1½ games back of No. 4 Michigan). If you haven’t taken a close look at the Hawkeyes’ gauntlet ahead, you’re about to. And if they’re going to emerge with the program’s first regular-season Big Ten title since 1979, they’ll have earned it.

To gather expert help for this breakdown, I reached out to two of my favorite Big Ten TV analysts — former Hawkeye Jess Settles and former Purdue star Robbie Hummel. The pair combined to spend 11 years in college (and each is thus the butt of good-natured jokes about their career longevity), play in 243 games and score 3,383 points. They also know the current Big Ten landscape as well as anybody, given their nightly work covering the league.

Hummel called Iowa’s most recent game, a jarring 81-69 home loss to Indiana, for Westwood One national radio. He knows what it’s like as a player to lose a game unexpectedly — the Hawkeyes’ five-game win streak was snapped — and the importance of keeping a level head.

“I’m sure Iowa’s fans thought they weren’t going to lose again this year, and all of a sudden, you lose to Indiana, and it’s like, ‘What’s happening?’ People overreact,” Hummel says. “As a player, you’ve got to block it out and understand all that matters is your teammates and what your coaches are doing.

“It’s not easy to win the Big Ten. That’s what makes (it) so cool when you do win it."

To start it all off: Illinois, on Friday. Before we get to the nuts and bolts of the matchup itself, Settles takes some time to appreciate the border rivalry. He was a young Iowa boy in the 1980s when the Hawkeyes and Lou Henson’s “Flyin’ Illini” had some epic battles, when Deon Thomas' name became forever linked with Chevy Blazers, when there was plenty of bad blood (before the recent bad blood) between Iowa and Illinois.

If you recall, last year’s game in Iowa City ended with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and Illini assistant Ron Coleman having some heated words, with McCaffery pulling his players out of the postgame handshake line.

“As a fan, I’ve been looking forward to this game like none other for the last year,” Settles says. “This is the way it used to be in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when there was so much on the line and … both teams made no secret that they, on the court, didn’t really care for each other.”

OK, time to fasten your seat belt and begin a challenging ride to March. (Keep in mind, the Big Ten will look to reschedule Iowa’s postponed home game with Nebraska somewhere in this mix. Also, rankings and records were as of Wednesday morning.)

Friday: at Illinois (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1)

Illini record, ratings: 10-5 (6-3 Big Ten), No. 9 KenPom, No. 7 NCAA NET

Breaking down the matchup: It’s a shame these teams only meet once in the regular season, considering the firepower on both sides. The Big Ten’s two leading scorers are on display in Iowa big man Luka Garza (26.9 points per game) and Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (21.7 ppg), as is the No. 1 KenPom adjusted offense (Iowa) and No. 8 (Illinois).

Illinois is excellent from 3-point range (39.7%), a tick better than Iowa (38.4%). The Hawkeyes have the depth advantage, and they should use their fouls strategically to slow Kofi Cockburn (17.1 ppg, 56.1% free throws). To Settles, the key for Iowa is pretty simple: Shoot it well, not only to score but to get back on defense.

“When Illinois is really humming, that fast break is just lethal,” Settles says. “If you miss a bunch of shots … they can turn defense into offense as well as anybody in the league.”

The Illini are prone to extended droughts. Iowa can have bad stretches of defense. This game could have a lot of big swings.

Final word: Hummel notes that Illinois doesn’t have any wins against the KenPom top 20. But, Iowa doesn’t either. That’ll change Friday night, one way or another. Here's hoping they meet again at the Big Ten Tournament.

Tuesday: vs. Michigan State (TBD, FS1)

Spartans’ record, ratings: 8-4 (2-4 Big Ten), No. 44 KenPom, No. 84 NET

Breaking down the matchup: The Spartans are coming off a COVID-19 pause, which led to this rescheduled game from Jan. 14 in Iowa City. What they bring to the court will be more apparent in coming days, but until now they’ve underwhelmed. Rocket Watts hasn’t been the answer at point guard.

Iowa's most difficult matchup is Joey Hauser. The 6-foot-9 Marquette transfer is a “Stretch 4” that the Hawkeyes must try to stop with a team effort of Joe Wieskamp, Keegan Murray and Jack Nunge. Settles expects Izzo to try to take away Garza; the Spartans held him to 8-for-21 shooting (20 points) in the only meeting last year. But the Spartans have been vulnerable inside without Xavier Tillman, who was extremely physical with Garza a year ago.

“Izzo is (Bill) Belichick-ian, in that he’ll do everything he can to take away your strength,” Settles says. “The secondary guys — CJ Fredrick, Keegan, (Jordan) Bohannon — you’ve got to make a team pay. That’s what I like about this Iowa team. They definitely have the weapons and maturity.”

Final word: Settles knows the difficulty of beating the Spartans, something Iowa hasn’t done since Jan. 14, 2016. “No matter what type of team you have,” he says, “it’s such an enormous win for a program if you beat Michigan State.”

Thursday, Feb. 4: vs. Ohio State (6 p.m. ESPN)

Buckeyes’ record, ratings: 12-4 (6-4 Big Ten), No. 12 KenPom, No. 17 NET

Breaking down the matchup: “They’ve probably improved as much as anybody over the last month,” Settles says of the Buckeyes, who are surprising first-place contenders. Sophomore E.J. Liddell (6-7, 240) is one of the league’s emerging stars and a pain in the neck for post defenders who have to chase him around the perimeter.

The Buckeyes are incredibly balanced. And they’ve won their last three road tests — at Rutgers by 11 points (Jan. 9), at Illinois by six (Jan. 16) and at Wisconsin by 12 (Jan. 23).

Final word: The key to beating the Buckeyes? “Follow whatever Matt Painter is doing,” Hummel says. The Boilermakers have outscored Ohio State in the paint, 70-36, in sweeping the season series. Translation: Iowa needs (and could get) a big game from Garza to beat the Bucks.

Sunday, Feb. 7: at Indiana (11 a.m., FS1)

Hoosiers’ record, ratings: 9-5 (4-6 Big Ten), No. 24 KenPom, No. 48 NET

Breaking down the matchup: “The revenge games were always my favorite,” Settles says, and this will be one of those for Iowa after last week’s stinging home loss to the Hoosiers. Indiana rides talented forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, but the real key to beating Archie Miller’s team is to slow down their mercurial guards. Rob Phinisee is 3-for-16 from 3-point range in Big Ten games at Assembly Hall, but he was 4-for-7 in Iowa City.

Indiana ganged up on Garza, and it worked because Bohannon shot 0-for-8 from 3-point range and Fredrick got hurt. Settles thinks the open looks will be there for the Hawkeyes again; they just have to make them.

Final word: “How many games is Jordan Bohannon going to go 0-for-8?” Hummel says. “You’re not changing a whole lot. You have an experienced group. You have an elite offense. ... I don’t think you panic and change everything.”

Wednesday, Feb. 10: vs. Rutgers (TBD, Big Ten Network)

Scarlet Knights’ record, ratings: 8-6 (4-6 Big Ten), No. 39 KenPom, No. 46 NET

Breaking down the matchup: The Jan. 2 meeting in Piscataway, New Jersey, became a turning point for both teams. Iowa rallied from down nine in the second half, which triggered its best basketball of the season and buoyed a five-game winning streak. That was the first of five straight losses for Rutgers, which had risen into the national top 15.

Hummel (who will be on the BTN call for this game) has seen the Scarlet Knights struggle to find their aggressive style of defense and rebounding. Last year, Rutgers’ defense was No. 6 in KenPom; this year it’s No. 40 with mostly the same roster.

Final word: “This time of year, the free throws are harder to make, the shots are harder to make,” Settles says. “There’s a lot of psychological warfare.” On that note, Rutgers’ free-throw percentage of 57.9% ranks 346th out of 347 competing Division I teams. This is the type of game Iowa MUST win on its title chase.

Saturday, Feb. 13: at Michigan State (1:30 p.m., Fox)

Breaking down the matchup: “It’s amazing with the Big Ten, it’s always (about) when you play people. It was that way when I played, too,” Hummel says. So, will the Hawkeyes catch the Spartans for two games in 12 days at a good time? Or is this when Izzo gets them going? As always, beating Michigan State requires good rebounding and transition defense.

Final word: This has become a network TV game, another showcase opportunity for Garza and the Hawkeyes to show they belong on a national stage.

Thursday, Feb. 18: at Wisconsin (TBD, ESPN or ESPN2)

Badgers’ record, ratings: 12-4 (6-3 Big Ten), No. 11 KenPom, No. 18 NET

Breaking down the matchup: Experience vs. experience, as these border rivals clash for the first of two meetings in a span of 17 days. The well-known stat has been passed around: Wisconsin's starting five has a higher average age (22.7 years) than that of the Chicago Bulls. But Iowa is not far behind, at 22.2.

Wisconsin is well-built to battle Garza, with Nate Reuvers (6-11, 235) and Micah Potter (6-10, 248) — who can also stretch the floor. The Badgers are the defending No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and they annually find themselves in the conference hunt down the stretch.

“I don’t think they’re as talented as Iowa, Illinois or Michigan,” Hummel says. “But I do think they have experience, which this year is so big.”

Final word: The Badgers still like to shorten the game with long possessions, and they are second nationally in protecting the basketball (12.6% turnover rate). This is the type of game that reserves Nunge and Murray must play big, both figuratively and literally.

“You can’t turn the ball over against Wisconsin,” Settles says. “You have to play a physical game. And you’ve got to know your assignments.”

Sunday, Feb. 21: vs. Penn State (TBD, FS1)

Nittany Lions’ record, ratings: 5-6, 2-5 Big Ten, No. 46 KenPom, No. 39 NET

Breaking down the matchup: You might look at the schedule and say, “Finally a breather. Penn State at home.” But that’s exactly the wrong mentality. The Nittany Lions are tricky, because they play a unique style that relies on a barrage of 3-point tries. They're skilled at getting long offensive rebounds off strange caroms. Despite an undersized front line, Penn State ranks 28th nationally in offensive rebound percentage.

“The guards have to be able to get long rebounds. It’s a totally different scout,” Settles says. “That’s a dangerous game.”

Final word: On the heels of road trips to East Lansing and Madison, Iowa can't get too comfortable at home, like it did against Indiana.

Sunday, Feb. 28: at Ohio State (TBD, CBS)

Breaking down the matchup: Is Buckeyes leading scorer Duane Washington Jr. hot or not? “He’s like Bohannon," Settles says. "A streaky, high-volume shooter."

Iowa has not won in Columbus since Dec. 30, 2014.

Final word: If Iowa has gotten to this point in the schedule and is within one game of the conference lead, it’ll likely control its own title destiny … given its final three games (over eight days) are against three of the league’s best teams.

Thursday, March 4: at Michigan (TBD, ESPN or ESPN2)

Wolverines' record, ratings: 13-1, 8-1 Big Ten, No. 3 KenPom, No. 3 NET

Breaking down the matchup: It’s possible that this lone Iowa-Michigan matchup settles the whole Big Ten. However, the Wolverines were dealt a serious unknown on Sunday as their athletics program was shut down for two weeks over coronavirus concerns.

The Wolverines lost point guard Zavier Simpson and big man Jon Teske, but somehow have upgraded those spots with Columbia transfer Mike Smith and terrific 7-foot-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson — who Settles notes could be the future all-American like Garza is now.

Under Juwan Howard, Michigan seems content to let Garza do his damage (he scored 44 a year ago in Ann Arbor) but lock down everyone else.

“Can Hunter Dickinson keep him below 45?” Settles asks. “Maybe hold him to the low 30s?”

Final word: Iowa and Michigan have two of the Big Ten’s most explosive offenses, but the Wolverines have the edge defensively. This team reminds me of Gonzaga, which beat Iowa, 99-88, on Dec. 19.

“That’s going to be interesting to see, how Joe Wieskamp handles that; CJ Fredrick, Jordan Bohannon,” Hummel says. “They put those longer guys on them, how can they find shots? That’s certainly a high-octane offense, but I think Michigan is as good defensively as anybody."

Sunday, March 7: vs. Wisconsin (TBD, Fox)

Breaking down the matchup: Iowa and Wisconsin met just once last season. Iowa trailed, 57-45, with just over 7 minutes remaining until a furious rally, led by Joe Toussaint’s offense creation, helped the Hawkeyes close out a 68-62 home win. If the finale of Iowa’s 20-game Big Ten schedule is equally entertaining, we’re all in for a treat.

Final word: So … not yet counting a possible rescheduled game against woeful Nebraska, how does Iowa finish over these aforementioned 11 games? 

Iowa probably needs to go at least 8-3 over these 11 and maybe 9-2 (or better) to have a legit shot at winning the Big Ten. And, as outlined, none of these 11 are gimmes. The gauntlet starts Friday in Champaign.

Buckle up. Here we go.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.