Iowa men's basketball can upset No. 1 Purdue if it does these three things

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

The Iowa men's basketball team is well aware of the challenge it faces this week in West Lafayette, Ind.

The Hawkeyes (15-8, 7-5 in Big Ten) are riding a three-game winning streak, but their toughest opponent to date awaits on Thursday: No 1. ranked Purdue on the road. It's a familiar matchup, as the teams played three times last season − Purdue won both regular-season contests and Iowa prevailed in the Big Ten Tournament championship.

The Hawkeyes will have Purdue's full attention after its nine-game winning streak was snapped on Saturday in a 79-74 road loss to Indiana.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery didn't put much stock into the significance of playing the nation's top team, but did outline how they reached that point.

"They're a very connected group. You can see it," McCaffery said Tuesday. "You've got two freshman guards (Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith) that are playing really well, and you have some veterans coming off the bench, accepting their roles and excelling in their roles. You've got a deep team. They're big. They've got a multitude of 3-point shooters. They're not a mistake team. They defend. They've always done that.

"It's a team you have to beat."

How can Iowa make it back-to-back wins over the Boilermakers? Senior Connor McCaffery said it starts with an expectation to win.

"I think it's just sticking to the game plan going into it and expecting to play well," he said. "You can't be nervous or scared going in and and I'm not saying other teams are, but just I think it's just a mindset that you kind of have to have an expectation. We practice well, we prepare for this, and then you just carry it all like any other any other game."

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Within the game itself, there are a few key areas that Iowa must excel in to leave Mackey Arena with a coveted win over a No. 1 ranked team. Let's examine three keys to victory:

Iowa has to make things difficult for Purdue star Zach Edey

The biggest reason for Purdue's success, figuratively and literally, is junior center Zach Edey. He's doubled his minutes per game output compared to his first two seasons (up to 31 minutes per game) and his improved skill set with his massive 7-foot-4, nearly 300-pound frame has resulted in a 22-point, 13-rebound per-game stat line.

"He's more comfortable out there," Fran McCaffery said. "They've always gone to him. Even when he only played half the game, they would go to him when he was in there. He's become much better at playing in traffic and making plays. When he first got there, he wasn't very good at that, and now he's passing the ball to cutters, he's skipping opposite, he's going quick, and that makes him that much harder to guard."

The brunt of the assignment falls on Iowa senior Filip Rebraca, who is giving up seven inches in height to Edey. However, he believes that he has some advantages as well.

"I feel like I'm a lot quicker so I can get downhill (driving to the basket)," Rebraca said. "Also the way that (Purdue) guards ball screens, I think I'll have opportunities to set up my teammates. Then when we get a rebound, being able to get it and run."

Iowa forward Filip Rebraca (0) understands the challenge he has in Purdue's Zach Edey, and he's embracing it.

It won't be Rebraca's job alone to stop Edey. One of the biggest keys that Rebraca and Connor McCaffery highlighted was forcing Edey to catch a pass in an uncomfortable spot, which is as far away from the basket as possible. From there, Rebraca has to trust that his teammates will provide the help-side defense necessary to disrupt his rhythm.

Additionally, Iowa will have additional front court depth on Thursday with the return of junior center Josh Ogundele. The 6-foot-10, 275 pounder provided important minutes in Iowa's championship game win over Purdue last season and has the body type that matches up with Edey.

Iowa understands that it's nearly impossible to stop Edey, but the team has a goal to make him as inefficient as possible. It's worth noting that Rebraca is also much improved from last season and has emerged as one of Iowa's best players. And he's looking forward to the challenge of matching up with Edey this season.

"I definitely take it as a challenge," Rebraca said. "I get to compete against the elite and I want to prove myself. So definitely looking forward to this game on Thursday."

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Iowa cannot allow Purdue to dominate the boards

A big reason why Purdue was 2-0 against Iowa in the 2021-22 regular season was a significant +17 rebound advantage. Even in a championship game loss, Purdue was +18 in rebounding margin.

Rebounding was one of Iowa's biggest problems last season, but this year the Hawkeyes have improved to fifth in the Big Ten in total rebounds per game and eighth in rebounding margin. Purdue is the best rebounding team in the conference in nearly every metric, and most important is offensive rebounds. If the Hawkeyes can consistently limit Purdue to one shot per possession, they'll have a chance to pull off the upset.

"They're No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding (12 per game) so that definitely changes our mindset," Connor McCaffery said. "I wouldn't say that we're not locked in on that in other games but this is, if not the main key, it's top two or three of this game. We will stress it in practice and (film scout) and will really be on top of that aspect of the game."

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Hawkeyes must keep their offensive momentum rolling on the road

Iowa leads the Big Ten in points per game (81.3).

Thursday's matchup, on paper, is great offense vs. great defense. Iowa leads the Big Ten in scoring and is averaging nearly 87 points per game in its three-game win streak. Purdue is second in the Big Ten in points allowed (61 per game).

Controlling turnover margin is critical for Iowa's success. The Hawkeyes turned it over just six times in the Big Ten championship game (compared to 17 by Purdue), which created more opportunities in transition where Iowa's most comfortable offensively. That aspect is magnified when playing in a hostile Mackey Arena environment.

How can Iowa keep the offense humming? Players on Tuesday said it's continuing what's worked recently − playing well in transition, sharing the ball, and finding and feeding the hot hand. Iowa's offensive balance is perhaps its biggest advantage. The Hawkeyes have had four different leading scorers in their past four games.

"I think that's what makes us special," forward Payton Sandfort said. "You can game plan all you want, but if you're the other team you really don't know who's going to be hot that night and who's taking the load offensively. Obviously, (Kris Murray) has been special every night but a bunch of other guys have been really contributing which has led us on this win streak."