IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has been whistled for 95 fouls through its first seven games, putting it among the nation’s leaders in that category.
Playing in low-possession games certainly helps keep that number low, to be fair, but one of UW’s strengths over the years has been playing defense without piling up fouls.
That trait will be challenged on Friday night when the No. 22 Badgers (6-1) open Big Ten play with a game against No. 14 Iowa (6-0) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The Hawkeyes are averaging 35 free throw attempts per game, which leads the Big Ten. Minnesota, No. 2 on that list, is at 26.8 per game.
Iowa had 38 attempts vs. Missouri-Kansas City, 45 against UW-Green Bay, 33 vs. Oregon, 37 vs. Connecticut, 29 vs. Alabama State and 28 vs. Pittsburgh.
The Hawkeyes aren’t only getting to the line, they’re converting at a high rate. They lead the Big Ten with a free throw percentage of 77.6.
“Really potent offensive team,” said UW assistant coach Dean Oliver, who was in charge of preparing the scouting report on the Hawkeyes. “That’s what you get when you have so many scoring threats is they get you on your heels and they force you to foul because you get caught in a bad way. If you’re not focused defensively on the game plan and you’re not disciplined, they find ways to either score a bucket or you’ve got to foul. They’ve done a nice job with that this season.”
Nobody on the Iowa roster gets to the line more than junior forward Tyler Cook. He’s 33 of 48 from the line, averaging 8 attempts per game while leading the Hawkeyes with 14.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per contest.
“I think he’s been trying to drive it more,” Oliver said. “His bread and butter is around the rim and you’ve got to keep him out of there because he’s probably one of the best finishers in college basketball. You’ve got to keep him away from the rim.”
Redshirt freshman guard Connor McCaffery, the son of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, gets to the line a bunch as well. He’s fifth on the team in minutes but has the second-most free throw attempts. Plus, he’s converting at an 85.3-percent clip (29 of 34).
Iowa has four players averaging in double figures. That group includes junior guard Jordan Bohannon, who has struggled with his shot but, as UW fans are aware, can light it up from 3-point range.
UW sophomore Nate Reuvers will have his hands full with Iowa sophomore center Luka Garza, if that’s how the matchups play out. Garza is averaging 14.3 points while shooting 62.5 percent from the field and has even proven to be a weapon from the perimeter, going 6 of 12 from 3-point range.
“He’s really playing with a ton of confidence,” Garza said. “With him hitting outside shots, it kind of changes how far they can spread the floor when their five man can come out and knock down shots. He just plays with a ton of energy. He’s played really well.”
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So has freshman Joe Wieskamp, a 6-6 guard who’s averaging 11.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Wieskamp is shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range (11-24).
“He’s been a big difference for them, I think,” Oliver said. “He adds shooting ability, he can really stretch the floor and then he’s just a smart player, especially for a freshman, seeing how he cuts and moves and knows where to go. He’s just been another piece to a team that was already really good offensively.”
Of course, offense has never really been the issue for the Hawkeyes. It’s their struggles on the other end of the court that have been well-documented.
Iowa was 19th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency category last season. But the Hawkeyes went 14-19 overall and 4-14 in Big Ten play because they couldn’t stop anyone, ranking 242nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Hawkeyes put in a lot of work on defense in the offseason and appear to have made at least some strides. But Ethan Happ and the Badgers will test that progress on Friday night.
Big Ten predictions
Before the season began, I was part of a panel of 28 media members from around the Big Ten who were asked to predict the order of finish around the conference.
I had Michigan State winning the Big Ten, followed by Michigan at No. 2, Nebraska at No. 3, UW at No. 4, Indiana at No. 5, Maryland at No. 6, Iowa at No. 7, Purdue at No. 8, Ohio State at No. 9, Minnesota at No. 10, Penn State at No. 11, Northwestern at No. 12, Illinois at No. 13 and Rutgers at No. 14.
I said it then, and I’ll say it again now: The Big Ten is really hard to predict this season.
The latest KenPom projections have Michigan winning the league — remember, it’s a 20-game schedule this season — with a 14-6 mark. UW and Michigan State are next at 13-7, followed by Purdue at 12-8 and a three-way tie between Nebraska, Indiana and Ohio State at 11-9.
I’m hardly going out on a limb by saying the standings could be a jumbled mess, which is why it’s hard to predict. I feel better about picking UW to finish in the top four but wouldn’t be shocked if there’s like a five-way tie for second, third or fifth place. Or maybe even at the top.
After three-plus weeks of non-conference play, here’s how I’d revise my prediction:
1, Michigan; 2, Michigan State; 3, UW; 4, Nebraska; 5, Purdue; 6, Indiana; 7, Iowa; 8, Minnesota; 9, Maryland; 10, Ohio State; 11, Penn State; 12, Northwestern; 13, Illinois; 14, Rutgers.