Positioning in the top-heavy Big Ten Conference is at stake Thursday when No. 20 Iowa welcomes No. 25 Ohio State to Iowa City.
Thursday’s matchup is the only regular-season meeting between the Hawkeyes (18-8, 9-6 Big Ten) and Buckeyes (17-8, 7-7), and it could be an especially important one for conference tournament seeding.
The top four teams in next month’s Big Ten tournament receive an automatic bye to the quarterfinals, avoiding the extra game that comes with finishing fifth through 10th — or two extra games, finishing No. 11 or worse.
Heading into Wednesday night’s action, Iowa was in a five-team tie for third-place. Ohio State was tied for eighth, but a win would pull it even with the Hawkeyes in the loss column.
“Winning is hard, especially in the Big Ten this year,” forward Kyle Young said in the press conference following Ohio State’s 68-52 win over Purdue on Saturday.
The Buckeyes have experienced just how difficult it is to win in the Big Ten, which could have as many as 11 NCAA Tournament teams. Ohio State, which was ranked No. 2 nationally early in the season, opened conference competition 2-6.
Ohio State has since won five of six games, including its past two. The recent surge elevated the Buckeyes back into the Top 25 and into the hunt for one of the coveted Big Ten tournament byes.
“This stretch has been great,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said following the Purdue win, before noting Ohio State’s challenges in some road games. “But I didn’t feel like … we brought enough effort in (the 70-57 loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 9).”
The Buckeyes are 3-5 in true road games, contrasted with Iowa’s 12-1 mark at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The home-court advantage, as well as the play of national player of the year contender Luka Garza, present two of the stiffest challenges for Ohio State on Thursday.
Garza is averaging 23.7 points per game, fourth-most in the nation, and 9.7 rebounds per game. He can score both inside, shooting 59.8 percent from inside the 3-point arc, and from long range with 38.8 percent accuracy (33 of 85) behind the arc.
With Garza as the engine, and the consistent deep shooting of CJ Fredrick at 46.7 percent from 3-point range, Iowa boasts the country’s sixth-most efficient offense per KenPom.com.
Ohio State has college basketball’s No. 14-ranked defense in adjusted efficiency, and is fourth-best at defending inside the 3-point line. Opponents shoot just 41.5 percent on 2-point field-goal attempts.
Kaleb Wesson, one of the Big Ten’s premier interior defenders and rebounders, counters the All-American candidate Garza. Wesson averages 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds.
For Iowa, Thursday’s contest marks its first at home since Feb. 8. The Hawkeyes went 1-1 in back-to-back road games at Indiana and Minnesota.
The 58-55 win over the Golden Gophers on Sunday continued a trend in which the Hawkeyes have not won or lost consecutive games since a five-game winning streak ended on Jan. 30.
“You cannot go on the road, get down eight with five minutes to go and panic, or it’s going to go from eight to 13,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said in his press conference following the Minnesota win. “It went the other way and things changed, momentum shifts and we were a confident group.”
–Field Level Media