Tuesday night, the Jackets take on Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Before the game, we sat down with Harrison Starr from Black Heart Gold Pants to get his insight on what he expects when the Hawkeyes and Jackets clash in Iowa City.
FTRS: Iowa lost two of its best players from last year in Keegan Murray and Jordan Bohannon. Who has stepped up so far to fill their roles?
In those two, Iowa lost the highest drafted Hawkeye, ever, after an incredible year and their most prolific three point shooter. The roles in the starting lineup are filled by Kris Murray (twin of Keegan) and Payton Sandfort. Kris is a better shooter but has a less varied game than Keegan so his results have had less stability than Keegan’s 2021-22. He’s had games of 10, 11, & 14 points, which already matches Keegan’s number of games scoring less than 15.
The flipside, though, is that when he is good, he’s been great. He was instrumental in Iowa’s best win (Seton Hall) by going on an early run by himself to dig Iowa out of a hole (he finished with 29) plus had a 30-point game on 13/16 shooting. So he is capable of some great performances.
Sandfort, though, he’s been a little more sideways this season as a starter. He shot 37% from deep last season but is at just 26% this season having gone 1/12 in the last four games. Yuck. He’s better than that and, to his credit, hasn’t let it affect the rest of his game as a solid team defender & capable distributor as a secondary ballhandler.
Tony Perkins has been the point guard which is a slightly different role than he finished with last year. He’s had his ups and downs maneuvering the new role but flashes plenty of potential with his athleticism and ability to get to the rim.
FTRS: What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this Iowa team? What does Tech need to do to win?
Iowa’s biggest strength of the last couple years under Fran McCaffery has been their ability to protect the basketball. So Iowa’s motion-based offense starts there to generate open looks for whomever is on the court. Additionally, this particular team has seemed to have an elevated ability by the guards (Perkins plus Ahron Ulis & Dasonte Bowen off the bench) to get into the lane and get a basket for themselves or others.
The weakness, as it currently stands, is depth. This is highlighted with Filip Rebraca at center and Murray often functioning as the backup, which has its strengths as a five-out, multi-dimensional offense and switchy defense, but doesn’t leave much margin for error between those two when it comes to foul trouble. Contrary to past McCaffery squads who run 9-10 deep, the rotation as it stands seems in the 7-8 guy range with Joshes Ogundele and Dix as the 9th and 10th men.
Defense has never really been Iowa’s focus under Fran as he tries to lean on length/athletic ability coupled scouting report adherence to generate success on that end. This team, with capable on-ball defenders and switchability 1-5, offers some hope for improvement there.
For Tech to win, my guess is they try and replicate what TCU did below plus: key on Iowa’s two shooters & turn them into an isolation team by cutting off driving lanes. Offensively, Fran will allow tertiary players to take shots from deep to protect against strong performances from opponents’ best players. If Pastner can leverage that into confidence for a guy like Miles Kelly to hit a couple threes early, that’s found money which may force Iowa to adjust how they’d prefer to guard them.
FTRS: In their most recent outing against TCU, Iowa lost by double digits. What went wrong in that one?
The Horned Frogs punched Iowa in the mouth and they never really recovered as TCU wore Iowa down with their depth, experience, and toughness. What was disappointing, from my perspective, in that one was how unprepared Iowa seemed to match TCU’s strengths (rebounding & their ability to generate turnovers) more than the actual result.
FTRS: What are fan expectations for this Iowa team in a loaded Big Ten? Is a Big Ten title a reasonable expectation?
Answering your second question first: no, a Big Ten [regular season] title is not a reasonable expectation. Iowa’s last one came in 1979 and there are just too many teams regularly ahead of Iowa in recruiting to think the Hawks can catch enough breaks to hoist that particular trophy at the end of the year. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the mix for a top 4 finish which results in a double-bye for the conference tournament. If they do that, it’d be a very successful season considering how many guys are in new roles this year.
I’ll also add onto this that the fact it’s unreasonable hasn’t prevented me from dreaming about it as a possibility with the early season emails from TeamRankings which had projected Iowa as the #1 seed come Big Ten Tournament time. If we can’t dream a little, why be a fan?
Overall, we’re at the point in Fran McCaffery’s tenure where not making the tournament would be seen as a disappointment, which is a huge step up from where it was when he took over.
Iowa has had a lot of success under Fran McCaffery, but has struggled to get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Is this the year that changes?
I don’t know, to be honest. Last year seemed like the year he’d get over that particular hump with the team playing their best ball down the stretch, including a Big Ten Tournament title, before Richmond took them down in the first round. That game ruined the whole tournament for me, and it happened Thursday before most people were getting out of work.
I’ll say where this team differs from prior iterations is they don’t have guys whose defense makes others worse like the 2020-21 squad. You could put Jordan Bohannon & Luka Garza in pick-and-roll defense and get an open shot in a pass, if that. The ability of guards to generate their own shots is also a huge step up, which is necessary come March.
I won’t be so bold to predict they get to the Sweet 16 but will predict the most likely outcome we’ve seen since 2014: get in and get a win.
What’s your prediction for this one? Who wins and why?
I think we see a bounce back game from Kris Murray and Patrick McCaffery, who went unmentioned so far but scored 21 points against Clemson. Georgia Tech doesn’t have the same profile as TCU or Clemson in their ability to make shots from anywhere on the court and as of yet, the stats don’t have them as particularly willing rebounders, which is an opportunity for them to take against Iowa.
Fran McCaffery will look to get his guys going and I can see them getting back to the basics with more shots around the rim in an attempt for better looks & some easy points at the free throw line. The offensive firepower proves too much over 40 minutes. 85-75, Iowa.
Many thanks to Harrison for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to check out some Iowa coverage over at Black Heart Gold Pants.