1) Hey, Iowa's real good! Right? Why are they so damn good?
ROSS: They're better than other teams at putting the ball in the basket AND at keeping other teams from putting the ball in the basket. Turns out that's a pretty good way to have a good team. Iowa is the only team in the country that ranks in the top 11 in offensive and defensive efficiency (though Virginia's pretty close). Iowa is reaping the benefits of experience and continuity this year -- they start four seniors and a junior and all five guys have played big minutes at Iowa. They've experienced a lot of success (and some crushing failures) and played in just about every environment imaginable -- they aren't going to get rattled by any tough road environment and they're mentally tough enough to not get too freaked out if they have a bad spell during a game. That gives them a nice advantage in college basketball when most teams are relying on underclassmen who tend to be more volatile and less consistent in matters like that.
Development has been a big key under Iowa's turnaround under Fran McCaffery and this year is his masterpiece. Iowa hasn't had a lot of big-time recruiting gets under McCaffery -- although Adam Woodbury (hi haters) and Jarrod Uthoff were both 4* recruits -- but they have had guys stick around for four years. More importantly, those guys have tended to get better every year and have really blown up as seniors. We saw it with Devyn Marble a few years ago and with Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni last year, but it's really blown up this year with Woodbury, Uthoff Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons, who are all playing the best ball of their careers. (Peter Jok isn't a senior but he's also made a huge leap forward.)
2) Okay, now tell me why Iowa sucks. No, I'm serious -- they have to suck at something, right? TELL US THEY SUCK AT SOMETHING.
ROSS: They're not great at getting to the free throw line, although they've been a lot better at that in Big Ten play. Iowa ranks 296th in the whole country in FTA/FGA, aka how often a team gets to the free throw line relative to their field goal attempts. (But they're not really bad at this stat -- they're actually 2nd at it among Big Ten teams in Big Ten-only games.) I guess Iowa is letting a lot of their opponents get a lot of their missed shots on offense -- opponents are grabbing 31% of their misses against Iowa, which is the second-worst rate in Big Ten games. That's not great. But Iowa also has been good at preventing teams from scoring too much off those second-chance opportunities, so it hasn't really been a fatal flaw.
3) I've talked to an Iowa person or two that's said -- not that Jarrod Uthoff is overrated by any stretch -- but Peter Jok's almost been carrying the team as of late and is just as important to Iowa's success, if not moreso. Agree or disagree?
ROSS: Agree, to an extent. I think Jok has leveled up and combined with Uthoff to give Iowa a pretty devastating 1-2 punch. I think if Jok hadn't made the leap and was just "good," then Iowa still has a really good team. But Jok's development has turned Iowa into a potentially great team. That push has helped make them the Big Ten frontrunner and pushed them into the Top 5 and made them a national contender this year. Having Uthoff and Jok both be so good on offense has really done a great job of helping Iowa avoid the offensive slumps that plagued them in the past -- at least one of them is usually on the court at all times, which gives the offense someone to go to and get buckets. They're also both great at generating transition opportunities, Jok with his steals (1.4 per game, 4th in the Big Ten) and Uthoff with his blocks (2.9 per game, 1st in the Big Ten).
4) We've hyped this home-and-home as a de facto BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES, and most of that is simply because of Iowa's remaining schedule, or lackthereof. Despite Indiana's stumble at Penn State, are Iowa fans looking at this game with the same gravitas?
ROSS: More or less, yeah. Iowa's schedule was front-loaded, so they're done with Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland. They do have a few tricky games remaining -- at Michigan could be tricky (especially if Caris LaVert is back and if Michigan doesn't concede a 28-0 run to the opponent), and the games with Ohio State and Wisconsin won't be gimmes since those teams are desperate to improve their bubble status -- but the home-and-home games against IU are definitely the biggest ones left on the schedule. Tonight's game in Bloomington looks like the toughest game Iowa has left on their schedule. If Iowa sweeps IU, I think the Big Ten is theirs. If they split with Indiana, they're still in very good shape. If they lose both, they open the door for the Hoosiers or (more worryingly) Maryland to sneak through and win the league. So, yeah, these are big, big games. We're hyped for this one.
5) As a fan, what concerns you most about Indiana?
ROSS: The ceiling falling again? Sorry, still bitter about what happened in 2014. I'm most worried about this game playing out like the Iowa State game did for Iowa, where Iowa's shooting cools off while their opponent just absolutely torches the nets in the second half. Indiana definitely has the ability to do that -- they're the best shooting team in the Big Ten and they're damn good from outside, too. It's definitely plausible that they could just get red-hot from long range. I think Iowa has a good enough offense to keep up, but if Iowa gets hot from the field, I can definitely see them pulling this game out.
6) CJ Beathard didn't get in the end-zone at the end of the first half of the Indiana game.
ROSS: Factually incorrect!
7) Steve Alford is actually bad.
ROSS: Factually correct!
8) Okay, fine, give me a prediction on the dang game.
ROSS: I've really gone both ways on this team. On one hand, I think this game looks very challenging -- Indiana is a good team, Assembly Hall is a tough place to play (especially when IU is good), going 17-1 is really hard, and I don't expect Indiana to shoot as badly as they did against Penn State. There's a lot of factors that seem to be against Iowa for this one. On the other hand... I love this team. They've been so good this year and they've answered almost every challenge so well that I just don't feel right picking against them. They've won in hard road environments this year (Michigan State, Purdue) and they went blow for blow with Maryland -- I don't think this team is going to be phased by Assembly Hall. I expect a close game and a high-scoring game... but I can't pick against my guys. Iowa 81, Indiana 77