On January 8, Iowa (12-8; 4-5) came to the RAC and disarmed the Rutgers (14-6; 6-3) defense with constant motion and ball movement. It resulted in a 76-65 loss. Iowa neutralized the physicality of the Scarlet Knights and their ability to double or trap the ball. The Hawkeyes made 12 of 27 from three-point range for 44.4%. RU will look to have a better performance on Sunday on the road at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The game airs live at 2 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
One underrated aspect of the first meeting was that Iowa was very good defensively. While Filip Rebraca is a smaller center at 6’9″, the Hawkeyes are a big team overall. I think their length bothered Rutgers and they were able to keep Paul Mulcahy out of the lane and from backing down into the paint. The Scarlet Knights also did a poor job finishing at the rim where they made just 12 of 29 layups and dunks (41.4%). Overall, RU shot just 38% from the floor and finished with a -2 rebounding margin.
“They played really well the first time and we didn’t,” head coach Steve Pikiell said in speaking with him earlier this week. “We’re now going into their house a tough place to play. There one of the best scoring teams in the country. We need to be really locked in.”
The Hawkeyes have lost two games in a row, both on the road, so they’ll be desperate to get back on track at home where they’ve won three in a row.
Iowa had four different players make multiple three-pointers in the first meeting, so Rutgers has to close out on shooters and can’t allow open looks on ball reversals and kick outs. Payton Sandfort has been streaky but made 4 of 5 from behind the arc at the RAC. He was the x-factor that gave Iowa an edge. Also, Patrick McCaffery has been back practicing with the team after a leave of absence. He was their third leading scorer before his break and would be another deep threat to contend with.
In addition, I thought the size and versatility of Kris Murray posed problems. Caleb McConnell had trouble keeping the bigger Murray in front of him at times, despite having 4 steals in the game. Rebraca is also a versatile big man that is tough to slow down. He had a double-double in the first game.
“Not only do they shoot the ball well, Tony Perkins goes downhill, so does (Ahron) Ulis,” stated Pikiell. “Rebraca is probably having his best season he’s had. Murray is a first round draft pick. Sandfort is playing at a really high level. This team is really good. And they’re the league (tournament) champs from last year. We have to go and play really well and we have been playing really well. We’ve been playing well all season. Expect it to be a great game and we have to play 40 minutes of great defense.”
Iowa plays at a fast pace and the second fastest tempo in Big Ten play. They’re No. 8 nationally in offensive efficiency and second in league action. Slowing the game down and forcing Iowa into contested shots on longer possessions is key. Making it a halfcourt game and forcing Murray and Rebraca to work with their backs to the basket will be key. If Rutgers is committed to doubling on the ball in the paint, they cannot afford to be late on closing out shooters if the extra pass is made.
While limiting Iowa behind the arc is important, they’re too good a shooting team to not make a decent amount. Rutgers needs to be able to make a few three-pointers of their own to limit how great the differential from deep will be. That means Cam Spencer needs to break out of his two game mini-slump.
In five straight Big Ten games to start 2023, Cam Spencer was on a tear. He averaged 16.8 points, 3.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals. He made 16 of 30 from three-point range and 18 of 20 from the line. However in the last two games, Spencer has scored just 5.5 points on just 4 of 21 shooting including 2 of 11 from three. He has averaged 6.5 rebounds during that stretch along with 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals.
“Cam’s been so good for so long. He was shooting 60% up until the Michigan State game,” Pikiell pointed out. “I also told him this is life when you are No. 1 or No. 2 on the scouting report now. He’s been a huge addition for us and he can really shoot the ball but he can’t shoot well every night. That’s the way it is. He’s still got to figure out a way to help us. That’s what he does. He helps us in a lot of ways. He rebounded the ball the other night at a high level. He gets assists, he gets steals he does a lot of things for us. I always tell him when you’re open keep shooting and take good shots.”
Rutgers is the most efficient defense in the Big Ten and need to force turnover against Iowa, who are 5th in league action in offensive turnover rate. However, they did commit 15 in the first meeting. maximizing scoring chances off of turnovers is key as is RU limiting their own. They can’t afford to give Iowa extra possessions, especially in transition as they want to push the pace.
Obviously, controlling the glass and limiting second chance scoring opportunities is a must in this game. Kick outs after offensive rebounds can be a real killer in this game.
The real key is Rutgers being able to dictate the game on their terms. They need to make it a physical battle and that means getting Cliff Omoruyi involved early and often. He is the one size mismatch for Iowa. Feeding him in the post establishes Cliff inside and he needs to work for good looks. While it could lead Rebraca into foul trouble, it will also help open up looks along the perimeter as the game progresses.
Mulcahy needs to dictate things on the offensive end and ensure the offense is active and sharing the basketball. Wearing down Iowa with ball pressure and then ball movement on the offensive end is key. Iowa is last in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency and Rutgers needs to exploit their issues. They can’t get caught up in a three fest or iso/hero ball. Look to attack the rim and make the extra pass. Shots will be there but RU also needs to make them. They can’t let the size of Iowa change their shots or cause them to not go strong at the rim.
While Iowa doesn’t foul much (No. 3 nationally), attacking the rim will either earn trips to the line or leads to good looks.
This is a game where Mawot Mag and Aundre Hyatt can exert their will physically if they play smart and under control. Offensive rebounds and second chance scoring has to be executed at a high level for Rutgers to win this game. I also think Caleb McConnell played well in the first meeting and can be a major factor on both ends on Sunday.
Life on the road is difficult but this team has proven they can win anywhere after beating No. 1 Purdue in Mackey. This a game where Rutgers needs every player to contribute in some way. They also cannot afford a slow start. At the RAC, Iowa jumped out to a 22-11 lead. While Rutgers fought hard to get the game within 5-6 points in both halves, needing to come from behind after a double digit deficit is a difficult climb, especially on the road.
It will be a challenge but after the win over Penn State, Rutgers should have confidence especially after shutting down the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten. Iowa is a better offensive team overall, but RU should play loose and it all begins with locked in defense.
My song choice for this game is “Tighten Up” by the Black Keys. While I do think this is a tough matchup for Rutgers because of Iowa’s size and ball movement, I also think they can play a lot better than they did in the first meeting. They need to play loose mentally like I said, but they need to tighten up their execution.
Finishing at the rim and limiting open space on the defensive end are the adjustments they need to make most. Be relentless on the glass and with pressure on shooters. Iowa isn’t the deepest team and not nearly as physical as Rutgers. Can RU force Iowa to play their style? It won’t be easy, but tightening up their execution on both ends and keeping it close puts more pressure on the Hawkeyes down the stretch. If it’s a one possession game in the final two minutes, I like Rutgers’ chances to close it out on the road once again.
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