Wisconsin Basketball hosts the Iowa Hawkeyes Thursday evening at the Kohl Center in a showdown with huge conference implications.
If you would’ve told me back in November that the Badgers would have a fourth-place Big Ten finish and the corresponding double-bye in the conference tournament within their grasp on March 6, I would have been ecstatic. It has certainly been one roller coaster of a season for Wisconsin, but, in the end, that is exactly the kind of situation we find ourselves in at the moment.
The formula for the Badgers is simple: win their final two games of the regular season, and fourth place in this year’s loaded Big Ten is theirs. And what an achievement that would be for a squad looking for redemption after a disappointing 2017-18 season in which Wisconsin missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in almost 20 years, and in what has arguably been the nation’s best conference this year.
The first step in achieving that goal comes in the form of the stumbling Iowa Hawkeyes, who head into Thursday’s matchup at the Kohl Center in the midst of a two-game losing streak. The Hawkeyes are coming off of an ugly 86-72 defeat to Rutgers in Iowa City last Saturday after getting spanked by Ohio State the game prior. They have now lost three of their last five contests.
While Wisconsin hasn’t exactly been playing great ball either as of late, they did manage to effectively close out a red-hot Penn State squad in crunch time on Saturday and have now won three of their last four games, all of which were close contests.
Thursday’s matchup should be decided by a similarly slight margin. While the Hawkeyes have hit a rough patch and the Badgers did already beat them once this season in their first conference game of the year back on November 30 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa remains a dangerous, NCAA Tournament-bound club that will be highly motivated to get back on track and exact revenge on a rival in doing so.
No. 21 WISCONSIN (20-9)
G – D’Mitrik Trice – SO (12.3 ppg)
G – Brad Davison- SO (11.0 ppg)
F – Khalil Iverson – SR (5.7 ppg)
F – Nathan Reuvers – SO (8.2 ppg)
C – Ethan Happ – SR (17.8 ppg)
G – Jordan Bohannon – JR (11.7 ppg)
G – Isaiah Moss – JR (9.3 ppg)
G – Joe Wieskamp – FR (11.1 ppg)
F – Luka Garza – SO (12.8 ppg)
F – Tyler Cook – JR (15.8 ppg)
Keys to the game and prediction
One potential X-factor to keep an eye on in this one will be the absence of head coach Fran McCaffery on Iowa’s bench. McCaffery will be serving the second of the two-game suspension he received after going on an expletive-laden tirade against an official following the Hawkeyes’ loss to Ohio State last week.
While the extent to which a head coach’s absence affects the performance of a team during a game is certainly up for debate, it’s hard to argue that the loss of McCaffery against Wisconsin is a good thing for Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ embarrassing loss to Rutgers last weekend at home in the first game of his suspension isn’t exactly a good sign for them as they prepare to face a much better Wisconsin team.
The loss of the familiar figure of the head coach on the bench represents a hitch in the usual routine of a game, and in a matchup that will probably be decided by a slim margin, McCaffery’s absence could be the difference between the Hawkeyes winning and losing.
However, while the suspension of McCaffery cannot be ignored when predicting the outcome of what should be a close game, it is probably more likely that the difference between Iowa and Wisconsin when it comes to fouls and free throws will have a greater impact. In this regard, the Hawkeyes should feel relatively optimistic.
Throughout Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes have drawn more fouls than all other conference squads, and, as a result, they also rank No.1 in both free throws and free throw attempts. Iowa has also knocked down most of those shots, ranking No. 3 in free throw percentage. Meanwhile, the Badgers have been downright awful from the line in conference play at 60.2%, and this glaring weakness has been their downfall on several occasions this season.
As a whole, Wisconsin has been one of the nation’s best when it comes to limiting fouls, which is somewhat reassuring. However, the Badgers committed 24 fouls in their first game against the Hawkeyes in November, well above their season average of slightly over 15. While they managed to pull out a victory despite this, I wouldn’t count on them being so lucky should they find themselves in similar foul trouble on Thursday night.
The other storyline to keep an eye on will be the performance of the backcourts. Ethan Happ and Tyler Cook are both likely to get theirs and should cancel each other out in the post, so whichever squad’s guards are more productive will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. In the last meeting, neither group played very well. It just so happened that Iowa’s guards were a little worse.
The Wisconsin defense absolutely locked down the trio of Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp, and Isaiah Moss from the field, as those three Hawkeyes combined shoot 7-28 overall. This was ultimately Iowa’s downfall. Luckily for Wisconsin, D’Mitrik Trice stepped up with a big performance, racking up 20 points and shooting 4-8 from beyond the arc, including a dagger in the game’s final moments. Outside of him, things didn’t go so well for the rest of the Badgers from the perimeter (4-16 from three). In addition, outside of Brevin Pritzl, Wisconsin’s guards have not played particularly well for the most part as of late, so their performance will bear close monitoring as Thursday’s contest wears on.
Nonetheless, I think the Badgers just have too many factors working in their favor to drop this one. The combination of McCaffery’s absence, Iowa’s poor play recently, and the homecourt advantage at a Kohl Center that will be loud and filled to capacity will prove to be too much for the stumbling Hawkeyes to overcome. Plus, the Badgers will be playing with a little extra emotion as they celebrate Happ, Khalil Iverson, and Charlie Thomas on Senior Night.
Wisconsin wins, 73-69.
All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com