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Can Iowa make it two straight upsets with a victory over Ohio State?

We stepped away from football recruiting news and complaining about Upper Arlington to talk Iowa basketball with the fine minds at Black Heart Gold Pants.

Matthew Holst

The Buckeyes get a chance to rebound from a disappointing loss against Michigan State tonight when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to town. If you haven't had a chance to watch much Hawkeye Hoops this season, you've missed out on a young team that may be setting itself up to be very competitive in the Big Ten for years to come. Ross Binder, one of the editors at the Iowa SBN blog, Black Heart Gold Pants, was kind join us for this edition of 5 minutes in the Holy Land and help the Buckeye faithful get up to speed on the Hawkeyes this year, and what we can all expect in the game tonight.

Many Big Ten writers, including myself, pegged Iowa as the league's "sleeper" team, and that a tourney berth was very much on the table for this squad. After a less-than-stellar out of conference slate and three Big Ten losses so far, is that still the expectation for Iowa fans? Are you ok with the way the season has gone so far? Worried?

I think Iowa fans are mostly happy with the way the season has gone so far. The non-conference slate was definitely not loaded with quality, but Iowa also managed to navigate it pretty well. They went 11-2, sweeping their in-state rivals (Iowa State and Northern Iowa) and managing to avoid any really bad losses. The loss to Virginia Tech certainly doesn't look good, but it doesn't seem like a crippling loss, either. Obviously a 2-3 start to Big Ten play isn't ideal, but it also wasn't totally unexpected considering that Iowa opened up with back-to-back-to-back games against Indiana, Michigan, and Michigan State, perhaps the three best teams in the league.

Iowa's schedule looked front-loaded from the first time we saw it and the way this season has shaken out has only reinforced that idea. Iowa's done playing Michigan and Michigan State; after this game, they'll also be done playing Ohio State. They still have to play Minnesota twice this season, but they also get to play four games against Nebraska and Penn State, as well as a game against the fading Illini. This schedule always seemed to be built for Iowa to make a run at the end of the season and that's still in play now. An NCAA Tournament berth is by no means guaranteed, but I think Iowa is still positioned to be in the bubble conversation come March. Ultimately, our goals are a little higher than that, but after the depths the Iowa program had sunk to in recent years, we're just looking to get back into the NCAA Tournament first and foremost.

What are you thoughts on the development of Gesell and Woodbury? Are they playing at the level right now that Iowa needs them to to compete for a tourney spot this season? How excited are you for the future of Iowa basketball, knowing you have a legit 7 footer and a solid point guard prospect for the next few seasons?

I don't know if they're playing well enough to get Iowa into the NCAA Tournament, but they're playing well. I don't know if they're going to crack the Big Ten's All-Freshmen team, but I think that has more to do with the abundance of talented freshmen in the Big Ten this year than it does any faults of Gesell and Woodbury. Gesell began the season as the starting point guard but has moved over to the off-guard role (another freshman, Anthony Clemmons, has been a bit better at the point guard spot) and is settling in there -- the one thing he needs to improve on (this year and in the future) is his outside shooting (he's only shooting 29% from deep right now). He has a nice-looking shot, though, so I do think that will improve. Woodbury has been going through some freshman ups and downs (he's a little too reliant on his left-handed hook shot right now), but his mere presence has improved Iowa's defense considerably and he's shown some really great flashes of potential on offense and defense.

I'm very excited about the future of Iowa basketball with these two (as well as other guys, like Clemmons, sophomore Aaron White, and some of the guys who will be available next year, including Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff and incoming freshman Peter Jok). None of these guys seem like the "one and done" sort and I'm eager to see them develop over the next few years. They've looked really solid as wet-behind-their ears freshmen, but I think they could become something special for Iowa as they gain more experience and physical maturity.

It looks like Roy Marble has slowed down a little in conference play. Is this just because of the higher caliber of defense, or is he being forced to do things that are outside of his comfort zone?

Things have definitely been a little bit rocky for him in league play. He was harassed by Victor Oladipo in the conference opener; Oladipo might be one of the best one-on-one defenders in the conference, especially among perimeter players. Everything went pear-shaped for Iowa in the last 25 minutes of the Michigan game, unfortunately. He sprained an ankle in practice before the Michigan State game, which has hampered his play ever since. He sat out the Michigan State game, and while he played in the wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin, he's looked a little bit limited. His first step isn't quite back yet. That said, since he's Iowa's number one option on offense, he's also seeing increased defensive attention from teams.

What do you think is Iowa's biggest weakness heading into this game? Strength?

I think Iowa's biggest weakness is definitely its outside shooting -- we're 10th in the conference, making 30% of our long-range efforts. That's pretty damn bad and it really limits what Iowa can do offensively. Iowa's other big weakness is its half-court offense, which can look very strained at times. Iowa can definitely struggle to break teams down in half court sets, which leads to a lot of bad shots.

The defensive effort is sometimes inconsistent, but it's been pretty strong ever since the Michigan meltdown and when Iowa plays well defensively (as they did for long stretches of the Michigan State game, pretty much all of the Northwestern game, and the first half of the Wisconsin game), they can look very, very good. (They have real issues maintaining that intensity and focus for a full 40 minutes, though.) That defense forces opponents into bad shots and gets Iowa's transition offense going, which can be pretty potent.

And finally, prediction not just for this game, but for the season?
I would like to predict an Iowa win in this game and I probably would if the game was in Iowa City. But it's in Columbus, which has been a house of horrors for Iowa for several seasons now. It's also a game on somewhat short notice for Iowa, which can't be good for Marble's ailing ankle. Throw in the fact that there's no way Iowa can duplicate the energy and intensity they brought to the win over Wisconsin (an extra-emotional game for Iowa because it was the 20th anniversary of the passing of a beloved former Iowa player, Chris Street) and that Ohio State will probably have a little extra motivation after losing to Michigan State this weekend... and I just have a hard time seeing an Iowa win. I think Ohio State wins by 8-10 points.

As for the season... I think Iowa will finish up around .500 in Big Ten play (8-10 to 10-8) and if they can do that and win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament, they'll be in the bubble conversation in March. I think the Big Ten will get seven teams into the NCAA Tournament and I think Iowa will be right in the middle of the fight for that 7th spot. Iowa plays too many freshmen for me to think that Iowa could be any sort of dark horse Big Ten contender and I know they're going to have some down games, but I like the way this team is improving as the season progresses and I think they have the ability to take advantage of a favorable Big Ten schedule.