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Minnesota game could be turning point for Hawkeyes

[ 0 ] February 2, 2013 |

With records of 14-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten, the Iowa men’s basketball team is proof of just how strong the Big Ten Conference is this season.

The same could be said for 23rd-ranked Minnesota, which is Iowa’s next opponent today at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

Both teams were flying high until they started conference play slightly more than a month ago

The Gophers (16-5, 4-4) climbed all the way to being ranked eighth nationally before losing four games in a row to Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin. They ended the skid by defeating Nebraska 84-65 Tuesday at home, but the Gophers still face an uphill climb in a Big Ten conference that is widely regarded as the best in the collegiate ranks this season.

Iowa compiled an 11-2 record during non-conference play, highlighted by an 80-71 victory over a very respectable Iowa State squad on Dec. 7 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The goal of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 seemed well within Iowa’s reach when conference play began, but not as much anymore.

Sunday’s game will mark the midway point of the 18-game Big Ten schedule. Iowa will either be 4-5 or 3-6 in the conference when it’s over. Neither record would be cause for celebration. But at 4-5, Iowa still would have a realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament, whereas a 3-6 record would require Iowa to go on a run, which seems unlikely in the Big Ten this season.

One game hardly will determine a season, but Sunday’s matchup will give the winner some much-needed momentum, whereas the loser will have even less margin for error.

Iowa already has played the toughest part of its schedule, including a stretch in which it faced No. 5, Indiana, No. 2 Michigan and No. 18 Michigan State over an 11-day stretch, losing all three games.

Minnesota and Indiana are currently the only ranked teams left on Iowa’s regular-season schedule, although the Gophers are hanging by a thread.

That’s good news in a way, but on the other hand, Sunday’s game for will be one of the few opportunities left for Iowa to get a signature win before heading to the Big Ten Tournament.

As for the Gophers, defeating Iowa wouldn’t qualify as a signature win. But a loss to Iowa, especially at home, could severely damage Minnesota’s postseason aspirations.

The Gophers are one of the more athletic teams in the Big Ten, with high-flying forward Rodney Williams, sharpshooting guard Andre Hollins and rebounding force Trevor Mbakwe leading the way for veteran coach Tubby Smith.

Minnesota leads the Big Ten in blocks and steals, averaging 6.1 per game in each category, and is second in the conference in rebounding margin at 9.6 and assists (16.0).

Minnesota is also 11-1 at Williams Arena this season – its only loss coming to top-ranked Michigan –and has won five of the last seven games against Iowa on its home court.

However, that doesn’t include the most recent matchup at Williams Arena in which Iowa prevailed 64-62 on Jan. 4, 2012. Iowa also defeated the Gophers 63-59 on Feb. 1, 2012, completing its first regular-season sweep over Minnesota since 2007.

Junior forward Melsahn Basabe is expected to make his second consecutive start for Iowa on Sunday after recording a double-double during Thursday’s 76-67 victory over Penn State with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

The 6-foot-7 Basabe always has been an effective low-post scorer in the block, but now he’s also holding his own on defense.

“He’s seeing the game and affecting the game at both ends,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “What you’re seeing is a guy as a result of that has more confidence in himself.”

Iowa has improved considerably on defense compared to McCaffery’s first two seasons as head coach, with opponents shooting just 39 percent from the field this season.

The problem is that Iowa’s defense often has been overshadowed or wasted by its shooting woes this season, especially from 3-point range where Iowa is shooting 29.9 percent.

Sophomore guard Josh Oglesby is considered one of the best 3-point shooters on the team and usually shows it in practice. The games have been a different story, though, with Oglesby having made just 24-of-88 3-point field-goal attempts this season.

He made 1-of-5 3-point shots against Penn State Thursday.

Iowa’s 70-50 victory at Northwestern on Jan. 13 is one of the few times this season when Oglesby has shot well from 3-point range. He made all four of Iowa’s 3-point baskets in that game, with all four coming in the second half.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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