The Wisconsin Badgers are entering the home stretch of their conference season and seem to be back from the brink just in time. They've won four games in a row after losing five of their last six, and find themselves just two games out of first place with five games to play.
But to keep their Big Ten title hopes alive they'll have to take down the Iowa Hawkeyes, who sit just half a game ahead of the Badgers in third place. Both teams need to win this game to realistically contend for a regular season title, while the other will have to fight to remain in fourth place to avoid a game on the first day of the Big Ten tournament.
The Badgers and Hawkeyes last played nearly two months ago, so I asked Tom Kakert of HawkeyeReport.com a few questions about Iowa and the season they've had since their last meeting with the Badgers. His answers are included below.
Iowa is 7-3 (with a postponed game) since their loss to Wisconsin in early January with wins over two Top 10 teams. What has gone well for the Hawkeyes since that game?
Tom Kakert: It was interesting that following the Wisconsin game we spoke with Iowa forward Aaron White outside the locker room and he basically said he was sick of losing to teams that we are better than. That might sound a little brash and White is not a known trasher talker, but I think it just spoke to the general feeling that he (and his teammates) were tried of losing games they feel they should have won. Iowa did drop two tough games at home to Michigan State and Ohio State on consecutive Tuesday nights, but done a much better job of putting away opponents this season as opposed to last season. The other key is that to date, they don't have anything resembling a "bad loss". It was amusing that this pastSaturday against Penn State, ESPN put up a good win/bad loss graphic for Iowa's NCAA resume and they had losing to Ohio State in Iowa City as their worst loss. If that's the worst loss on the resume, then I think you could say they have played pretty good basketball this year. Overall, I think the Iowa players have really come to understand their roles and the rotation that Fran McCaffery has been playing. I think a couple of the keys in the Big Ten season have been the development of Mike Gesell at point guard and Gabe Olaseni's energy off the bench.
On the flip side, what has tripped the Hawkeyes up in their three losses? Two of those losses came in Iowa City, so is there a particular formula for beating Iowa on the road or does it vary by team?
TK: Those two losses are very interesting because what I've seen opponents trying to do against Iowa is basically concede, for the most part, their offensive rebounding opportunities in order to get back on defense and try and limit the Hawkeyes transition opportunities. Iowa has really made a living in transition this season and it's been one of the keys to their success. One of the other key aspects of both those games was Iowa's inability to make three point baskets. The Hawkeyes were 3-12 against Michigan State and 3-20 against the Buckeyes. Certainly some of the credit should go to both clubs for their defense, but Iowa had plenty of good looks in those game and couldn't make shots. One of the interest stats for Iowa in conference play is that in all their wins against Big Ten teams, they have made at least 5 three point field goals. In all four losses, they have made four or fewer from distance.
Is there any chance having their road game against Indiana delayed ends up benefitting the Hawkeyes? If you were coaching the team would you rather have the extra time off or just get that road game out of the way?
TK: I think it's going to be very interesting to see how the postponement this week impacts Iowa. Not only do they basically get this week off, but they were on a bye last week, only playing on Saturday against Penn State. That means Iowa has only played one game in 14 days. While the rest is great for a team, it's hardly ideal when it comes to staying sharp. Given that Iowa doesn't have another bye week this season, the Hawkeye coaches would have loved to have played this one as scheduled or even a day later. Iowa tried to make that happen, but Indiana balked at playing it at Banker's Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday evening for logistical reasons, so now it looks like the Hawkeyes will end up playing at Minnesota on Tuesday, followed by a likely game on Thursday in Bloomington. That is a very quick turnaround for back to back road games and then Iowa will return home to host Purdue on Saturday night. Three games in five days and two on the road is hardly ideal, but I think Iowa will be able to handle it given their depth.
Heading into Saturday's game the Hawkeyes are 1.5 games out of first place in the Big Ten. With Michigan and Michigan State set to play again this weekend what chance do you give Iowa of finishing the regular season in first place?
TK: About two weeks ago, Iowa was three games out of first place and most of those title aspirations were on life support. But, Iowa has been pretty steady and last Sunday, MSU and Michigan came back to the pack a bit losing to Nebraska and Wisconsin. The title chase may have been hurt a bit by the delay in playing Indiana simply because it makes the final stretch run a bit harder and more condensed. Iowa still has a shot and in some respects they do control a bit of their own destiny with a date at Michigan State coming up in early March. However, it's still an uphill climb because Iowa's schedule is more challenging (on paper) than either the Spartans or Wolverines. One other Big Ten race note is that Wisconsin is nipping at Iowa's heals and that makes Saturday's game even more important for both clubs when it comes to seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. Staying a three seed or higher is probably ideal because you don't want to have to face a five seed like Ohio State on Friday in Indy and you sure don't want to drop to the five seed and have to play a game on Thursday.
Finally, at this point what's a fair seed for the Hawkeyes in the NCAA tournament? Is this a team that's capable of pulling off a deep run?
TK: Most of the bracket projections right now have Iowa as a five seed. That's not sitting too well with Iowa fans, but it's a pretty fair spot right now and they can move up in the next week. A win over Wisconsin, who is generally seeded higher than Iowa in most projections, would help their cause and probably move them up to the four seed. Some of the buzz from earlier this month about Iowa being a sleeper Final Four team has died down. It was running pretty hot and heavy recently, but Iowa losing the two games to MSU and OSU in Iowa City has calmed the waters a bit. Having said that, Iowa is certainly capable of making a deep run come tournament time. They are a deep basketball team and they have been very efficient on the offensive end of the floor all season long. But, as we all know it comes down to getting the right draw. If you look at Iowa's resume and consider that they haven't lost to a team that won't make the NCAA Tournament, I think it lends itself to the idea that a deeper tournament run in March is very possible.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.