It's rivalry week, as Purdue tips off Sunday afternoon against Our Most Hated Rival before facing That Team From Down South on Wednesday. That's a pair of important home games Purdue needs to at least split if it is going to play in the first season.
So let's kick off Rivalry Week with a Q&A. Black Heart Gold Pants continues to churn out their filthy pro-Hawkeye propaganda and Ross is their spokesman on basketball:
T-Mill: Iowa is on the brink of a tournament berth, but there is a thin margin for error. What do the Hawkeyes need to do to get in?
Ross: Win basketball games? But seriously, they're rapidly running out of games that are "okay" to lose. It didn't really hurt Iowa's standing to lose to the likes of Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State (aka, probably the four best teams in the Big Ten), but if they aren't going to swing any upsets against teams higher than them on the pecking order, then it's vital that they also avoid losing to teams at or below their level of the pecking order. So far this year they've done a good job of that (other than the early-season loss to Virginia Tech, which looks worse with each passing week). To keep their tournament aspirations alive, they really need to notch wins over teams at their level (in the Big Ten that looks like Purdue, Northwestern, and probably Illinois). (And they definitely need to beat the teams below that level, like Nebraska and Penn State.) If they can manage that, they should have a shot come Selection Sunday.
T-Mill: What is up with Melsahn Basabe? Two years ago he looked like he would be a beast, but his numbers are way down.
Ross: His numbers are down -- but that's mainly because his minutes are also down, not necessarily because he's regressed as a player. And the primary reason his minutes are down is not because he's a worse basketball player, but because Iowa has managed to add more quality basketball players around him over the last two seasons. As a freshman, Mel got a lot of minutes in part because the competition for minutes wasn't so fierce. We were playing Andrew Brommer and Devon Archie 20 minutes a game back then and Zach McCabe was a Human Fouling Machine. Since then, Brommer and Archie have departed and been replaced by guys like Aaron White, Adam Woodbury, Gabe Olaseni, and a much-improved McCabe. That's been a bit of an upgrade.
Mel is playing well, especially lately -- he's had double figures in points or rebounds in three of his last four games and he's been bringing great energy off the bench. He's still a good scoring threat, still a strong rebounder, and still a disruptive (if sometimes inconsistent) defensive presence. Most Iowa fans wish we was playing a bit more, although it's hard to find front-court guys on this Iowa team that you can steal minutes away from.
T-Mill: Overall, are you pleased with the growth that coach Fran has accomplished? I remember him scaring the crap out of us in the NCAAs during his final Siena game.
Ross: Yes, I think overall we're very pleased with the growth Iowa has shown under Fran. This program was in a bad way just a few years ago -- that last year under Lickliter was an almost unending horrorshow and the first year under Fran was very rough (other than that wonderfully sweet upset win over the despised Purdue Boilermakers in the regular season finale!). Hell, even last year Iowa still wasn't good enough to always beat the teams they "should" beat -- they lost to Campbell and Nebrasketball at home, for God's sake. Fran seems to have stabilized things on that front (knock on wood; we haven't played Nebrasketball yet this season) and improved Iowa to the point where we can legitimately aspire to play in the postseason without needing something improbable to happen (like every other team in the league to come down with Ebola at the Big Ten Tournament). It's been 6-7 years since that was the case at Iowa.
T-Mill: Who guards A.J. Hammons on Sunday?
Ross: Damn, he's a big boy (7-0, 280). I would guess that the first guy on tap to guard Hammons will be Iowa's own 7-footer, Adam Woodbury. He isn't having quite as good a freshman season as Hammons (5.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg vs. 9.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg), but he's been a solid defensive presence and he's one of the few guys Iowa has who can match Hammons' size. Beyond Woodbury (who's only averaging 16 minutes per game), Gabe Olaseni, Zach McCabe, and Basabe will probably spend some time defending Hammons. Iowa doesn't have anyone who can match Hammons' bulk -- our heaviest guys are Woodbury and McCabe, listed at 235 -- so there's definitely a risk of Iowa just being outmuscled on the interior. They're probably going to have to swarm and harass Hammons to be slow him down.
T-Mill: What matchups favor a Purdue team that has talent, but is still extremely young?
Ross: To be honest, I don't know a great deal about Purdue's strengths, so this is a difficult question to answer. As noted above, Hammons looks like a real beast down low and Iowa could certainly have a tough time handling his bulk if he gets going. Iowa also goes with a smaller backcourt at times (freshmen Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons have been starting lately and they're both around 6-1), so if Purdue counters with some bigger guards, that could pose some issues for Iowa (although Roy Devyn Marble often handles the defensive assignment for Iowa on a team's best wing player). Overall Iowa's been a pretty solid defensive team (leaky efforts against Virginia Tech and Michigan notwithstanding), especially on the perimeter, so I don't know if there are any glaring weak spots for Purdue to target. That's not to say that this Iowa team is full of lockdown defenders -- it's not -- just that it's a solid unit without obvious deficiencies.
T-Mill: Finally, what was your prediction?
Ross: At the beginning of the year, Iowa was a pretty poor team away from home -- they got demolished by Virginia Tech and Michigan in road games and lost to Wichita State on a neutral court. (They also beat UNI on a neutral court, for what that's worth.) But things have improved lately -- they smashed Northwestern by 20 on the road (a win which looks more impressive after the way Northwestern played Indiana and Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena) and put an impressive scare into Ohio State on the road on Tuesday. They can't afford to dig themselves a 24-point hole like they did in that game (obvious statement is obvious), but they no longer just throw in the towel when things go badly on the road. I think this will be a close, relatively low-scoring game, but Mike Gesell, Aaron White, and Basabe make enough plays down the stretch to carry Iowa to a narrow 66-62 victory.