For Iowa basketball, Minnesota — with new roster and coach — presents unique challenge
IOWA CITY — It's most popularized in college football, but the NCAA transfer portal is equally, if not more, impactful in college basketball.
That much is evident in the Big Ten Conference. Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said after his team's 83-74 win over Indiana on Thursday that new players from the portal have contributed to the strength of the conference this year. And Iowa's opponent on Sunday might be the ultimate case study in roster reconstruction through the portal.
Minnesota (10-4, 1-4 Big Ten) fired former head coach Richard Pitino last March. The result was a mass exodus of players into the portal. All but two scholarship players left, leaving new head coach Ben Johnson no choice but to sift through the portal himself to fill out this year's roster.
Ten Gophers came in from colleges such as George Washington, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, William and Mary, and more. Their three-game Big Ten losing streak is why Iowa is favored to win, but a 10-win team with a first-year coach and a makeshift roster has McCaffery's full attention.
"They can't get any more different," McCaffery said via Zoom on Saturday. "Everything is completely different. A lot of transfers, a lot of guys who were the best players on the teams they left."
Three transfers, Jamison Battle, E.J. Stephens and Payton Willis, make up the Gophers' top three scorers, as well as their best 3-point shooters. Battle, a 6-foot-7 sophomore wing who is sixth in the conference in points per game (17.9) and fifth in 3-point percentage (36%), will likely be Keegan Murray's assignment defensively.
"He has really developed his (offensive) game," McCaffery said of Battle. "His ability to get his shot off, drive the ball. He can shoot the pull up, turnaround jumper and the catch-and-shoot. He's starting to play with athletic power. He's a multi-dimensional offensive threat."
Minnesota's scoring output is down from past years but it's staying competitive in games through its defensive play. The Gophers are fifth in the conference in fewest points allowed but they're most effective in defending 3-point shots. The Gophers are No. 1 in opponent 3-point percentage (27%), which will challenge Iowa's patience.
In their last two road games against Iowa State and Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes rushed shots early in the shot clock. That, along with poor rebounding efforts, allowed opponents to gain extra possessions that built their leads. That's been a point of emphasis in the few days leading up to the Sunday contest.
"They have really good perimeter athletes that'll contest (shots)," McCaffery said. "We have to continue to try to do what we do, which is push the ball and move the ball. Not settle for contested shots and not take non-intelligent shots early in the shot clock. We have to be smart in our shot selection."
Iowa is looking to build on the momentum of Thursday's second half, in which it outrebounded Indiana by seven and held a plus-five margin for the game.
There are a few factors working in the Hawkeyes' favor for Sunday. Minnesota averages the fewest total rebounds per game and is second-to-last in rebounding margin, and its captain forward Eric Curry, the team's leading rebounder, injured an ankle in the previous game and his status for Sunday is unknown.
Since its last-second win at Virginia in late November, Iowa is 0-3 in road games, including two in Big Ten play. Later matchups at Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan await it down the stretch. It's important for the Hawkeyes to re-find their winning ways away from home in January. A rivalry win against a team that's new but still highly experienced isn't a bad place to start.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.