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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A on the Iowa Hawkeyes

SBN sister blog Black Heart, Gold Pants is your best source for all things Iowa sports related. We sat down with them (colloquially speaking) to ask their thoughts on the opening round game in the Battle4Atlantis.

Iowa's senior guard has been Roy Devyn Marble-ous this year. Okay, I'll see myself out.
Iowa's senior guard has been Roy Devyn Marble-ous this year. Okay, I'll see myself out.

BOTP: The first thing that jumps off the page on Iowa is the insane pace at which they play (74 possessions per game, 12.9 second average offensive possession length); how much of that is a product of the soft early schedule and how much is Iowa's chosen style of play?

BHGP: The soft early schedule has made it easier for Iowa to play at an even faster tempo this season, but make no mistake: this tempo is absolutely by design. Iowa wants to run, run, run... and then run some more. Since Fran McCaffery took over at Iowa four seasons ago, Iowa has led the Big Ten in tempo every season and every off-season he's talked about wanting to go even faster than he did the year before. This year's pace is the fastest yet and while part of that is definitely a result of the competition Iowa's faced so far (it's not that hard to run on Abilene Christian or Maryland Eastern Shore, frankly), it's also because this is McCaffery's deepest and most talented team yet. Iowa goes about 10-deep pretty comfortably right now and he's very comfortable using them in different combinations and having all of them press on defense and push the pace on offense. I expect the 74 possessions per game pace to slow a bit as the competition ramps up (and especially when Iowa moves into Big Ten play and plays several teams inclined to slow things down), but the pace is likely to stay in the high 60s/low 70s range.

BOTP: Concomitantly with the previous question, Iowa currently gets nearly half of their total minutes off the bench. As the schedule stiffens up, do you expect to see that continue, or will Coach McCaffery shorten the bench and leave his top guys out there longer?

BHGP: It's true that bench guys have gotten quite a bit more playing time in the season's first five games because four of them have ridiculously lopsided blowouts, which provides ample opportunities to let everyone get some game action. Iowa has 10 guys averaging 15+ minutes right now, which is indicative of some pretty heavy rotation. Iowa is a deep team this year and McCaffery is comfortable playing guys off the bench (he's made hockey-style "line changes" of all five guys on the floor at several points during games this season), but I would expect that figure to dip slightly. Iowa should have 10 guys averaging double-figure minutes, but the guys at the bottom end of that group will probably be in the 10-12 minute range rather than 15+. Right now, I would say that Roy Devyn Marble (Iowa's top scorer and a guy who's started games both at point guard and off-guard), Aaron White (Iowa's starting small forward and second-leading scorer), Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa's top contributor off the bench and one of their best all-around players) and Mike Gesell (Iowa's main point guard now) will all easily average north of 20 minutes a game; beyond that, it's probably a bit of a crapshoot.

BOTP: Speaking of which, who are Iowa's top guys? Everyone except Kyle Meyer is looking like a stud right now. Is this team that talented, or is there a pecking order waiting to be revealed?

BHGP: As noted above, Iowa's top guys this year in terms of minutes figure to be Marble, White, Uthoff, and Gesell. Marble, White, and Uthoff are all averaging 10+ ppg, while White and Uthoff are Iowa's top two rebounders, and Marble is Iowa's leading assist man; I don't expect them to stay near the top of those categories all season (although Gesell will probably take over as Iowa's top assist guy now that he's been moved back to the starting point guard role). Marble can be a streaky shooter (especially from deep), but he's good at getting to the free throw line and even when his shots aren't falling, he's usually contributing a lot in other ways (rebounds, assists, steals, etc.).

White is a garbage man extraordinaire, finishing off alley-oops with aplomb, busting past slow-footed defenders and finishing with dunks and lay-ups, cleaning up rebounds, and drawing fouls (lots and lots of fouls; he took a team-high 258 free throws last season). He's also excellent in Iowa's transition game. His jump shot is still pretty inconsistent, but he does so many other things well that it's easy to look past that. Uthoff is a transfer from Wisconsin (although he's a local boy from just up the road in Cedar Rapids, IA) who sat out last year and has immediately become one of the best players on the team this season. We're still figuring out exactly what he can do, but so far there doesn't seem to be a lot that he can't do; calling him White with a perimeter game is a bit reductive (as well as a bit unfair to White), but it's also not entirely untrue. His interior game isn't quite as physical or well-defined as White's, but he compensates by having a much better jump shot (and some ability from long range, although he's attempted just four treys this season). Gesell began the season as an undersized two-guard, but he's since regained his position as the starting point guard. He does a solid job of dictating the offense and has a pretty nice shot from outside.

Iowa also has a lost of big men who will see a lot of action, including Melsahn Basabe, Gabe Olaseni, Adam Woodbury, and Zach McCabe. Basabe and Olaseni have similar games: lots of thunderous dunks and rebounds and boundless amounts of energy. Basabe also has a decent mid-range jumper. McCabe provides a lot of physicality in the interior (especially on defense), but he's also a floor-stretching four who has a good outside shot. Woodbury was Iowa's prized recruit a year ago and he's still very much a work in progress, but he flashes a few neat moves in the post (mainly a baby hook shot) and rebounds fairly well.

You'll probably notice there's one thing I didn't note much in that write-up: outside shooting. Iowa's not a great jump-shooting team, which is why teams tend to play a lot of zone against Iowa and dare them to make long 2s (or 3s). Iowa's shooting 35% from long range at the moment, which is a pretty solid number, but it's also a bit deceptive -- some strong shooting performances from deep in Iowa's last two games have given that figure a boost and Iowa's still very much unproven at making those shots against better opponents or when they really need to. (Many of Iowa's 3s this year have come in a games that they were winning in a rout anyway.) Iowa's offensive efficiency (47th in the country, per KenPom) has a lot to do with their ability to finish around the rim and their ability to control the offensive glass (they're rebounding 41% of their misses so far, 23rd best in the nation).

BOTP: Iowa's defense is absolutely smothering and is turning opponents over at an incredible rate; how do they do it? What should a Xavier fan be worried about on that end?

BHGP: Iowa runs a fair amount of full court press, which has proven to be effective at harassing opponents into mistakes; they're forcing turnovers on 23.% of opponent possessions, 15th best in the nation. Iowa also has impressive block% (16.8, 23rd in the nation) and steal% (12.4, 27th in the nation) totals and, obviously, the level of competition Iowa's played thus far plays a factor there. But Iowa can be a headache on defense because they're full of long, rangy guys who get hands in passing lanes or hands up to deflect or alter shots. Iowa's not the quickest or the most physical defense, but they can be one hell of a nuisance for opposing offenses. They also don't foul. Like, at all. Through five games this season, Iowa is averaging just 14 personal fouls per game, 5th best in the nation, despite the fact that the new NCAA rules make it so much easier to draw fouls. That said, Iowa hasn't played a team yet that has perimeter players like Xavier, so it will be very interesting to see how Iowa's foul rate is impacted by that. But the turnover-generating ability of the Iowa defense is very real and if I was a Xavier fan, I'd be worried about all those long, lanky arms knocking the ball loose on offense and leading to easy Iowa buckets in transition.

BOTP: Last possession of the game and Iowa needs a bucket to avoid the "consolation" (loser's) bracket; who do you want to see with the ball in his hands?

BHGP: This is a good question and, honestly, not one that I have a good answer for. Our "go-to guy" the last few seasons has been Marble, as he's generally been the best guy at creating his own shot when things devolve into hero ball/isolation hell at the end of games. That said, his success rate in situations like that isn't exactly great, so I don't know that many Iowa fans would feel ecstatic about seeing Marble go one-on-one with someone and pull up for a fadeaway jumper to win the game. Truthfully, the better option would probably be running a play to get White a good look near the bucket (which could also enable him to draw a foul and shoot free throws; he's an 80% free throw shooter), but my dark horse wish would be for Uthoff to give the ball to Uthoff and see what he can do. That's a pretty bold decision considering we've never seen him in crunch time of a close game against a good opponent, but he's looked incredibly assured this year. He's a deceptively good ball-handler, he can attack the basket quicker than you'd think, he has a very polished offensive game (his jumper is already the best on the team and he finishes well around the hoop, too), and he's the best free throw shooter on the team (91% right now). I'd very much like to see what he can do with the pressure on at the end of the game; on paper, he's definitely got the skill set to thrive there.

BOTP: My extensive training and experience in basketball leads me to believe someone is going to win this game; who and why?

BHGP: I've heard that if the game ends in a tie, both teams have to sacrifice a cheerleader to the old gods of Atlantis, so it's probably a good idea if someone can actually pull out a win on Thursday. I'm genuinely very eager to see how Iowa deals with a team like Xavier. I think Iowa is a good team this season -- and potentially a very good team -- but it's impossible to really gauge that when the opposition is so poor. Xavier is a quantum leap forward in terms of competition and they should provide an excellent litmus test for just how good Iowa is at this point in the season. I expect this to be a close game; I think Iowa will struggle with long-range shooting in their first game away from home this year, but I think the defense will be strong enough to force a lot of turnovers and generate some easy scoring opportunities for Iowa. And if it is a close game, I like Iowa to pull it out, given the free throw shooting disparity between the two teams (74% for Iowa, 60% for Xavier). So give me IOWA 73, XAVIER 67.

Thanks to Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants for taking the time to pull back the curtain on Iowa hoops. Brad will have our preview of the game up here before you're inundated in in-laws and turkey, and we'll be here giving you all the news that's fit to print throughout the Battle4Atlantis.