Virginia Tech faces off against Iowa Hawkeyes tonight, as Buzz Williams’ side will play a team that has been to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four years. Since the Hawkeyes are not a very familiar foe for the Hokies, we talked to Harrison Starr of SB Nation’s sister site Black Heart Gold Pants to gain some insight as to what we can expect from Iowa tonight.
Gobbler Country: Prior to last season, Iowa had made three straight NCAA tournament appearances. However, last year, they failed to do so. Was last season an aberration and is Iowa expected to have a spot in the big dance in the spring?
Harrison Starr: Before last season began, Iowa lost a senior class which included 392 starts. So it was a bit of a rebuild. The way they did it was by centering the team around its greatest strength, which was Peter Jok and his shooting. That left a lot to be desired in terms defense but the young guns, namely Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook, displayed a lot of potential last year. A late season surge inflated their resume a bit and defensive struggles resurfaced in tournament losses to Indiana and TCU.
This year, they return a ton of their scoring but don't have the same hub in Peter Jok to build their offense around. In the Hawkeye bubble, I and many others, figured this to be a year they'd return to the Big Dance. They've shown a lot of the lapses in defense as they did last year and are actually younger than they were last year. With some weird injuries/transfers affecting an integral piece - Nicholas Baer - and less important players - Ahmad Wagner, Connor McCaffery, and Christian Williams - it's been an interesting start.
I still think it's "tournament or bust" but this game and the three which follow will really dictate what we can expect in terms of the season's ceiling.
GC: Looking over some of the numbers here: Iowa is 47th in Offensive Efficiency and 124th in Defensive Efficiency (per KenPom). They shoot the ball well, hitting on 42.7% of their perimeter attempts. Isaiah Moss is leading the team in scoring with 15.8 PPG. Do numbers paint the whole picture for this team, or is there a stat you can point to that doesn’t indicate the truth about Iowa?
HS: I'm not sure the numbers paint the whole picture of this team but they definitely paint a fair picture. Much like Virginia Tech, Iowa hasn't played many high-quality opponents.
Against three bottom-feeders, Iowa was pretty much able to do whatever they wanted offensively but concerns emerged against Grambling State, who was able to function as a really poor man's Virginia Tech. They were able to get into the lane and get open shots there and along the perimeter but couldn't score at the right clip. On defense, their length really got to the Hawkeyes, especially Jordan Bohannon and Brady Ellingson. Those concerns manifested themselves in losses to Louisiana (length on defense) and South Dakota State (three point shooting) in their Thanksgiving tournament but they were able to salvage the trip to the Caymans with a win over UAB.
In terms of potentially misleading stats, I think Isaiah Moss as the leading scorer is a bit of misdirection. The Hawkeyes operate best offensively when they are going inside out with sophomore power forward Tyler Cook and freshman center Luka Garza. Moss has really stepped up this year with Jok's departure, but when Iowa commits to going inside they can be tough to handle.
GC: What will be the key matchup in deciding the outcome in this game and why?
HS: It all starts with Iowa's perimeter defense. I expect Fran McCaffery to show a lot of different looks at Virginia Tech and really hope one of them will take. If Iowa can force Virginia Tech into contested shots (or VT settles for them), Iowa will have a chance in this one.
GC: What is one area in which the Hokies can take advantage of Iowa, either on offense or defense? Conversely, what do you think the gameplay will be for Iowa to attack Virginia Tech?
HS: Like I mentioned before, Iowa's shown a lack of energy on defense, especially with their guards. Nicholas Baer, arguably Iowa's best defender, is slated to return after missing the first six games with a broken pinky on his non-shooting hand. We're all hopeful he can shore up the defense but Jordan Bohannon has shown an inability to keep guys in front of him the last two years.
I also think a fast-paced game is to Iowa's detriment. They're definitely prone to submitting to a high-paced game and if shots aren't dropping for the Hawks, they tend to lose focus on defense.
If I'm Iowa, I try to slow the game down, attack the Hokies frontline with Cook and Garza to get Iowa to the foul line and slow the game down to keep Virginia Tech out of transition. It also allows Iowa to set up their press which is used more to slow down their opponent more than force turnovers.
GC: Iowa’s top five leading scorers (per game) are all sophomores or freshmen. Is this a young team that can be expected to make mistakes due to a lack of experience?
HS: As I've mentioned earlier, the youth is definitely apparent with this group so far. Only a couple juniors have gotten real minutes and Fran has seemed to struggle a bit with identifying roles with the lynchpin of his bench unit, Baer, out so far this season.
I will say, this is not a unit that is unafraid of tall orders: they went into Maryland and Wisconsin last year and beat them. So, I don't know if I'd say they make mistakes due to lack of experience but the inconsistency is largely due to it. If shots are falling, they'll have a chance.
GC: Prediction - who wins and why?
HS: For many of the reasons outlined above, I just don't think Iowa will come away from Blacksburg with a win.
I think the Virginia Tech guards are able to do whatever they want on offense and while Iowa is able to hit some shots to keep it sorta interesting, it won't be enough. 96-86. Hokie Hokie Hokie Hi.