To be the man, you have to beat the man.
On Thursday evening, the Ohio State men’s basketball team — who were picked to finish in seventh place in the Big Ten by the media — will travel to Iowa City to take on the No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes. Currently sitting at 13-4 overall and 7-3 in league play, the Hawkeyes boast the No. 1 offense in the nation according to KenPom, and are scoring 89.4 points per game — tops in the B1G and second-most in the country.
They’re led by the slam-dunk favorite for National Player of the Year, Luka Garza, who is the nation’s highest scorer at 26.5 points per game. He is also fourth in the B1G in rebounds per game (8.8), field goal percentage (59.6%), and blocks per game (1.7). He’s knocking down 45.6% of his three-point attempts, good for seventh in conference.
And oh yeah, he’s 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds. Here’s your man, Ohio State. Now go beat the man.
With a win, No. 7 Ohio State (14-4, 8-4) would take sole possession of second place in the Big Ten, with first place Michigan still paused due to COVID cases within their athletic department (not within the basketball program). Yes, the same team that struggled to dispatch UMass-Lowell just over two months ago is now in a position to shake up the top of the Big Ten standings and fight for a Big Ten championship.
Beating Iowa on the road will be no easy feat, however, as they possess one of the most potent and well-rounded offenses in the country. The Hawkeyes surround Garza with perimeter scoring threats, daring teams to commit more than one defender to their star. As soon as that happens, Garza kicks the ball back out and lets his supporting cast do the rest.
In addition to Garza, Iowa has three other players — Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, and CJ Fredrick — who all shoot 37% or better from beyond the arc. This will be especially tough to counter for an Ohio State team with no players taller than 6-foot-8. Iowa is a mismatch nightmare for many teams, but especially a Buckeye squad that is undersized and likes to slow down the pace of play.
After starting the season 12-2 and hovering inside the top-five of the AP Poll for much of the season, the Hawkeyes have stumbled a bit lately, losing two of their last three games. An Iowa offense that averaged over 90 points per game for much of the season stalled against Indiana and Illinois, scoring “just” 69 and 75 points in those games, respectively. The Hawkeyes seemed to get back on track against Michigan State on Tuesday evening, downing the Spartans 84-78.
Questions still remain about Iowa’s defense, which has yielded 80 points or more five separate times this year and gave up 78 points to the lowest scoring team in the B1G entering Tuesday night’s game. The Hawkeyes aren’t collapsing by any means, but may be stalling just a bit after a scalding hot start to the season.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, started the season 2-3 in conference play, including a heartbreaker to Northwestern on the road and two thorough beatings at the hands of Purdue and Minnesota. Since then, they’re 6-1, with the only loss during that stretch coming on a last-second buzzer beater by Purdue at home. Ohio State has risen from unranked all the way to No. 7 in the country during that timeframe, and has made the leap from afterthought to a serious title contender in the Big Ten.
When Ohio State and Iowa meet on Thursday evening, it’ll represent a meeting between two of the top-five most efficient offenses in the country, as determined by KenPom. Efficiency is measured by how many points a team scores per 100 possessions, and Iowa is the cream of the crop in that category.
Buoyed by Garza’s versatile offensive skillset and his teammates’ capability to score from the perimeter (38.2% from downtown as a team), Iowa is scoring 125.6 points per every 100 possessions, which is the best mark in the country. In layman’s terms: on average, Iowa scores at least one point per possession. Every defensive stop the Buckeyes get should be praised, as stopping the Hawkeyes' collective cast of scorers has proven to be a difficult task for the whole conference.
The Buckeyes are the No. 5 most efficient offense in the country, but they do it in a completely different way. Despite knocking down three-pointers at right around 34% (10th in the B1G) and only shooting 45.4% from the floor overall (seventh in the B1G), the Buckeyes have been elite at getting to the basket, drawing contact, and converting at the free throw line.
Ohio State’s 420 free throw attempts through 18 games are the most of any team in the conference, and their 76.7% mark at the charity stripe is the second-best in the conference behind only Michigan’s 76.8%. So not only are the Buckeyes doing an excellent job getting to the line, they’re also making teams pay for sending them there. Ohio State has seven players knocking down 75% of their free throws or better, which includes the nation’s best free-throw shooter, CJ Walker (98%). For reference, there are only four B1G teams who shoot 75% or better as a team.
Pace will play an important role in this game, as Ohio State will without a doubt try to slow Iowa down, especially in transition. The Buckeyes are one of the slowest-moving teams in Division I basketball (No. 270 in tempo), which they use to set their offense and guarantee a high-percentage look. Iowa, on the other hand, feasts on opposing defenses when they can get the ball in their shooters’ hands before the defense is set.
It’ll be interesting to see how the back-and-forth plays out between the two fighting tempos, and it’s noteworthy that the two games Iowa lost recently were contests where their opponents were able to slow them down and hold them under 80 points. Between Ohio State’s efficient offense and Iowa’s somewhat porous defense, the Buckeyes should be able to score fairly easily. The challenge for them will lie on the defensive end, putting out the blazing fire that is Iowa’s offense.
Another sub-plot to watch in this game is the duel between the top three-point shooters in the conference, Iowa’s CJ Fredrick and Ohio State’s Justin Ahrens. The two are shooting a B1G-leading 50% from downtown this season (minimum 50 attempts). Fredrick torched the net to the tune of a 46.1% three-point percentage during his freshman season and has picked up this season right where he left off.
Ahrens has seen consistent, meaningful minutes for the first time in his career in year three, and has been a huge boost to Ohio State’s uber-efficient offense. His mere presence on the perimeter forces teams to commit a defender to him at all times, creating space down low for the likes of E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young.
The last time these teams met was Feb. 20, 2020, also in Iowa City. Ohio State fell behind 27-8 early and never caught up, falling to the then-20th ranked Hawkeyes 85-76 on the road. Then-freshman E.J. Liddell set his career high in scoring at the time with 17 points, but Luka Garza’s 24 points paced Iowa as they shot 62.1% from the floor in the first half to put Ohio State in a massive hole.
That would be the worst-case scenario for Ohio State once again, as they simply cannot let Iowa push them around and build an early lead. This year’s version of the Hawkeyes can erase a 10-point deficit in a matter of seconds, or turn a tie game into a blowout in just a few minutes. Chris Holtmann and Co. will need to control the pace and prevent Iowa from stringing consecutive baskets together.
The Buckeyes will march into Carver-Hawkeye arena as huge underdogs in this game, despite being the higher-ranked team. Iowa has lost just once this year at home, and they have a pretty noticeable size advantage over the Buckeyes at most spots on the floor. Liddell and Young have done an admirable job guarding centers that tower over them this season, but Garza presents a new challenge due to the offensive firepower that surrounds him.
During Ohio State’s win over Illinois, their strategy to limit Kofi Cockburn was to throw two, three, sometimes even four defenders at him every time he touched the ball. While Cockburn still did end the game with 15 points, he was only able to take seven shots the entire game. He grew visibly frustrated with Ohio State’s repeated assault as the game wore on, at one point almost coming to blows with Buckeye guard Duane Washington Jr after Washington accidentally poked him in the face on a shot attempt.
The triple-team approach worked against Illinois because even when Cockburn was able to kick the ball out, his teammates were not knocking down perimeter shots consistently. Iowa won’t miss those shots, and they’ll make the Buckeyes pay if they commit more than one defender to Garza. It’ll lie on the shoulders of Liddell and Young to limit the nation’s best player to a modest 20-or-so points tonight to give Ohio State a chance.
There’s no shame in losing to an elite team on the road, and after the Buckeyes pulled off masterful road wins at both Illinois and Wisconsin, it seems like a longshot that they pull off the trifecta Thursday night. If they make it happen, they’ll be right in the mix for a Big Ten championship. If they lose it’ll be a crushing blow to their title hopes, but not many people picked the Buckeyes to cut down the nets anyway. In that sense, Chris Holtmann and the gang are playing with house money.
We’ll see if they can beat the man Thursday night.
ESPN BPI: Iowa 73.7%
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