Two games in 5 days will shape Hawkeyes' Big Ten title hopes
IOWA CITY, Ia. — On the Sunday that NFL conference championships will be decided, Iowa and Purdue meet in a game that could ultimately play a role in deciding the Big Ten Conference men's basketball crown.
Two games in five days will tell us a ton about ninth-ranked Iowa’s 2016 fate, actually: Sunday at home against the 22nd-ranked Boilermakers; and 6 p.m. Thursday at No. 9 Maryland.
Three scenarios can play out.
Win both, and Iowa will be at least the co-favorite to win its first Big Ten Conference regular-season title since 1979.
Lose both, destiny departs Iowa’s hands, and there would be little margin for error the rest of the way.
Split, and the Hawkeyes would have completed the difficult first eight games on their Big Ten schedule at 7-1, with much accomplished and much drama ahead.
Iowa (15-3, 6-0) has already done its part by twice taking out one title contender in Michigan State. Purdue (17-3, 5-2) and Maryland (17-3, 6-2) are seen as the two other premier teams in the conference.
Iowa does have two games ahead against No. 25 Indiana (17-3, 7-0), but the Hoosiers’ schedule gets tougher in the second half, while Iowa’s gets easier.That's why keeping pace with the Hoosiers now is so key.
Let’s break down the four leading Big Ten championship contenders, in order of the standings:
Indiana (17-3, 7-0)
So far: The Hoosiers have enjoyed the easiest conference schedule to date in the Big Ten. Their only road games have been at Rutgers, Nebraska and Minnesota. But they’re taking advantage, and they’ve been impressive at times, including in Saturday's 89-57 home rout of a solid Northwestern team. Senior point guard Yogi Ferrell has been a candidate for the conference player of the year, averaging 17.1 points and 6.1 assists.
What’s left: Wisconsin (road), Minnesota (home), Michigan (road), Penn State (road), Iowa (home), Michigan State (road), Nebraska (home), Purdue (home), Illinois (road), Iowa (road), Maryland (home).
Analysis: Indiana is off to its best Big Ten start since Bob Knight's 1992-93 team, so it's time to take notice, no matter the opponents. The Hoosiers can flat-out score, as evidenced by their No. 3 national ranking in 3-point percentage and No. 5 from 2-point range. Don't be surprised if they complete the first half of the league schedule 9-0, but the back nine will reveal Indiana's true grit.
Iowa (15-3, 6-0)
So far: Iowa has been maybe the nation’s most impressive team in the last month, parlaying road wins at Michigan State and Purdue into the school’s best Big Ten start in 29 years. Equally impressive is that five of those wins have come by double digits.
What’s left: Purdue (home), Maryland (road), Northwestern (home), Penn State (home), Illinois (road), Indiana (road), Minnesota (home), Penn State (road), Wisconsin (home), Ohio State (road), Indiana (home), Michigan (road).
Analysis: The Hawkeyes have one of the toughest Big Ten schedules, but even so, if they can protect Carver-Hawkeye Arena — where they have won 12 in a row since February — they could be on track to break the school record for Big Ten regular-season wins (14, first set in 1970 and tied in 1987). To do so, Iowa will need to win some one- or two-possession games down the stretch. At minimum, the Hawkeyes are in good position (barring a 2014-style class) to get a double-bye (top-four seed) at the Big Ten Tournament in March.
Maryland (17-3, 6-2)
So far: The Terrapins were the prohibitive preseason Big Ten favorites, and they have mostly acted the part. Their only losses before Saturday night’s 74-65 setback in East Lansing were to North Carolina (by eight) and Michigan (by three). For all the hype given to playmakers such as Melo Trimble, Maryland plays the Big Ten’s third-best defense, too, and leads the conference in free-throw percentage. That’s a good combination for a clutch team.
What’s left: Iowa (home), Ohio State (road), Nebraska (road), Purdue (home), Wisconsin (home), Minnesota (road), Michigan (home), Purdue (road), Illinois (home), Indiana (road).
Analysis: Maryland has a good chance of controlling its own fate to the end, with its final two road games against current title contenders. The Terrapins also benefit by not traveling to Iowa City, where they were slayed by 16 points a year ago. Regardless of Big Ten finish, this is a prolific team that should contend in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Purdue (17-3, 5-2)
So far: Two puzzling second halves have deterred Purdue from possibly being a top-five team. The Boilermakers blew a 17-point halftime lead at home to Iowa, and they curiously lost by 14 at Illinois — allowing a combined 97 second-half points in those games. That’s out-of-character for one of the country’s top defensive teams.
What’s left: Iowa (road), Minnesota (road), Nebraska (home), Maryland (road), Michigan State (home), Michigan (road), Northwestern (home), Indiana (road), Maryland (home), Nebraska (road), Wisconsin (home).
Analysis: Purdue’s biggest weakness is the lack of a proven point guard, which might point to its three losses. That void will be tested in a schedule with the toughest road games ahead. But the stats – No. 3 in the league in offense, No. 1 in defense – indicate Matt Painter’s Boilermakers are built for a championship run. Getting swept by Iowa would really hurt their chances.
Hawkeyes now 'a big target'
USA Today’s “Bracketology” earlier this week predicted Iowa as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and playing the first two rounds in Des Moines. That would assume the Hawkeyes continue their hot play and win the Big Ten.
But in the way is a difficult challenge in Purdue, which is off to its best program start in 28 years, despite a 70-63 home loss to the Hawkeyes on Jan. 2.
In that game, Iowa trailed by 17 points at halftime before unleashing a 50-point second half.
“We just have to get a fast start,” said Iowa wingman Peter Jok, who has scored 68 points in his last three games. “Last time, we had a slow start and they got a jump. … We can’t let that happen again. We’ve just got to come out ready to play.”
Purdue will bring the nation’s No. 3 field-goal percentage defense (36.4 percent) and ninth-best scoring defense (60.8 points a game) into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, along with motivation to avenge what happened three weeks ago.
Getting an opponent’s best shot is something Iowa needs to get used to; as the wins keep coming, attention will continue to grow. USA Today had a reporter sizing up Iowa at Thursday’s game at Rutgers, in which the Hawkeyes were sluggish at times but still won by 14. Purdue beat Rutgers three days earlier by 50.
“Everybody’s gunning for us at this point in the season,” senior center Adam Woodbury said of facing Purdue and its giant front line of Isaac Haas, A.J. Hammons and Caleb Swanigan. “We’ve got a big target on our back. We’ve got to come more prepared than we did tonight.
"Collectively, one through 17, we’ve got to be more ready. And I think we will be.”
WHO: No. 22 Purdue (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) at No. 9 Iowa (15-3, 6-0)
WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
TIME/TV: Noon, Big Ten Network (Announcers: Cory Provus, Jon Crispin, Mike Hall)
RADIO: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Siriux/XM Channel 81.
NOTES: If Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff finishes as the Big Ten’s leader in scoring and blocked shots, he’d be the first player to do so since Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson in 2011. … With a win, Iowa could jump into the nation’s top five. Entering Saturday, No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 Xavier and No. 6 West Virginia had lost this week. … For the second time in 11 days, Iowa faces the nation’s leader in rebounding margin. Michigan State held that distinction entering the Jan. 14 game that Iowa won 76-59. Iowa outrebounded the Spartans 39-35. Purdue owns a plus-12.4 margin for the season.