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Pittsburgh Panthers face the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge

After a nice long weekend, the #14/15 Iowa Hawkeyes (5-0) are back in action against the Pittsburgh Panthers (6-0).

For Pitt, Iowa represents a step up in competition – KenPom has the Hawkeyes 51 spots higher than their previous opponent, St. Louis, at 32. The new NET placed Iowa at 15 to the Billikens’ 62 and the Panthers come in at 23. By my perusal, this is actually the second highest matchup in the challenge according to the tool (#2 Virginia/#17 Maryland is highest). YAY SMALL SAMPLE SIZE

Jeff Capel is back (!) after dropping bags for Coach K for the last seven seasons. He made quick work in the offseason securing three valuable freshman: Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney, the last of which reclassified from the 2019 class. All three start and average over nine points a game, with Johnson leading the way at 16.7 per game.

Rounding out Pitt’s starting lineup are Malik Ellison and Kene Chukwuka. Chukwuka is the tallest player on their roster and is instrumental in their ball screen-heavy offense.

Off the bench, Jared Wilson-Frame adds 16 points a game while Sidy N’Dir, a grad transfer from New Mexico State, adds 5.2 points and was instrumental in their two-point win against St. Louis. Wilson-Frame has been impressive in the young season, as he is shooting 17/35 (48.5%) from three-point range.

Pitt is very much like Iowa in terms of valuing free throw attempts. While Iowa doesn’t possess quite the same slashing as many of those listed, both teams get to the line quite a bit. The Hawkeyes’ current free throw attempt-to-field goal attempt ratio is .674 (the highest in the nation) and Pittsburgh’s is at a tidy .500. The Panthers have also done a good job so far of keeping control of the basketball with a turnover rate of just 16.0% for an average of 11.5 a game.

As always, here’s what I’ll be looking for:

I know, there are only so many ways I can spin “Is this defense for real?” before I bore everyone who reads this humble blog but try, I must. Pittsburgh will really do their best to get into the lane where they can find open shooters, get a layup/dunk, or to the foul line. Iowa is going to be tested because they’ve got more size than UConn but are likely to play in a similar way.

If Iowa’s guards struggle to stay in front of Johnson, it will be a long night on the defensive end. I’d love to see Jordan Bohannon step up here, but he is giving up a couple inches to Johnson and if he gets in early foul trouble again, it would keep him from getting in rhythm offensively. Additionally, Tyler Cook will have to chase around a smaller guy all night and he’s shown he’s capable. Let’s see him do it again. And they’ll have to do it all without fouling.

How Iowa plays the pick-and-roll will also be incredibly important. It’s been a pretty hedge-heavy gameplan for most of Fran McCaffery’s tenure and I suspect that to continue. Luka Garza is imperative to that strategy, though, and if it breaks down, there could be plenty of open shots, especially in the corner when help comes to the screener. Iowa’s done pretty good at limiting wide open corner threes – will that trend continue tonight?

I’ve been blown away with how dominant Iowa’s been with Cook and Garza leading the charge. Since both guys averaging over 16 points a game, there’s not much reason to switch it up. Not only have they thrived on one-on-one matchups as the two have navigated how to occupy the lane one at a time, they’ve made the game easier for everyone. Iowa is actually shooting more threes proportional to overall shots than last year (40% vs. 34%). They simply haven’t fallen at the same rate. It’d be a pleasant not-so-surprise to see Bohannon sink a couple clean looks as the Panthers look to double Iowa’s post players. And yes, let’s keep getting Isaiah Moss and Joe Wieskamp the ball, as those two are shooting over 40% from three so far this season.

Iowa’s defensive rebounding rate isn’t where you’d expect it to be, given the amount of minutes Cook, Garza, and even Ryan Kriener play. At just 68.4%, it ranks 250th in the country according to KenPom.

Perhaps it’s a bit of fools’ gold for Hawkeye opponents, though. Each of the last two games – both over with plenty of time on the clock – are Iowa’s worst in that department, at 62.8% and 60.5% against UConn and Alabama State, respectively. It would still be a welcome sight to see Iowa return to form in this area and play as big as they are.

While Pittsburgh is not yet highly regarded, they’re a talented bunch who will test the Hawkeyes. If Iowa can get past another unique matchup from a high-major squad, the stakes will raise even higher this weekend.

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