Kyle Young and Justin Ahrens sat side by side at the podium, pondering whose been the most challenging individual player Ohio State has had to defend this season.
After about five seconds, Young turned his head to the left and asked Ahrens, “I don’t know, can you think of everybody right now?” Ahrens had an answer ... from a season ago.
“I remember last year Carsen Edwards was hard to guard,” he said. “This year?
“I can't think of anybody specific,” Young said.
|No. 20 Iowa (18-8, 9-6)||Iowa City, Iowa (Carver Hawkeye Arena)||7 p.m.||ESPN|
The duo of Buckeyes forwards might have a quick answer if they happen to get asked that question again in a few days. Luka Garza, a national player of the year candidate, and his No. 20 Iowa Hawkeyes will welcome No. 25 Ohio State to Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday evening for a tilt featuring two of the four ranked Big Ten teams.
“I've been seeing a lot of good things about him this year,” Young said. “He's having a fantastic year. Someone who's playing with just as much energy and going out there and doing what he's doing is fun. As a competitor, you always want to play against the best guys.”
On Thursday, the Buckeyes will do just that while seeking their sixth win in the past seven games.
Garza, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound big man, has put himself alongside Dayton’s Obi Toppin, Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, Marquette’s Markus Howard, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, Duke’s Vernon Carey and San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn. And there’s a case to be made that he’s having the best season of all of them.
Three Key Hawkeyes
Everything about Iowa begins with Garza. He’s averaging a ridiculous 23.7 points and 9.7 rebounds with 1.7 blocks in 30.8 minutes per game. And he does it all while hitting 55.6 percent of his shots from the field and 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers. With consistently high energy levels, an ability to dominate down low and stretch it out to the arc, he’s been one of the nation’s most productive players. He’s also top-10 in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
“Elite shape. I think he's in incredible condition for a guy as big as he is,” Holtmann said. “He's got tremendous touch. I think being a year older has helped him. It's clear that he put in tremendous work in the offseason with his conditioning, his fitness, his shooting. And then he's obviously incredibly physical. But I just think his motor is what people point to when they watch him that makes him so special.”
Outside of Garza, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Wieskamp has been the Hawkeyes’ most efficient scorer. He has put up 14.9 points per game, shooting 45 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from behind the arc. Six times in Big Ten play he has topped 20 points.
McCaffrey, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound guard, won’t break any scoring records. He hasn’t topped nine points in a game since Dec. 12. He has hit 32.6 percent of his shots with more than half of them coming from behind the 3-point arc, where he shoots 31.2 percent. But he has gained Holtmann’s respect for the rest of his game.
“Obviously Garza's having a great year, but they've got a lot of really good players that impact the game,” Holtmann said. “The coach's son, McCaffrey, he's a really tough kid that has a great feel for how to get his teammates involved and playing to win. You can't turn him over, and he's really tough and tough-minded.”
Three Key Buckeyes
Holtmann’s compliment of Garza’s motor sounded a heck of a lot similar to how some opposing coaches have discussed Young, Ohio State’s starting power forward. If energy is an area the Buckeyes feel as though they need to match, Young can take that as a challenge.
“Just try to go out there and do the same thing,” Young said. “Go out there and play with effort and energy every play, not taking plays off, 50-50 balls. All that stuff needs to be ours.”
The first game without DJ Carton went swimmingly for Walker, who had 14 points and four assists versus Indiana. Since then, he’s been just OK with a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio but poor shooting percentages. To beat Iowa, the Buckeyes have to take advantage of a lacking defense, and it’s up to Walker to facilitate open looks.
We’ll find out if lightning strikes twice on Tuesday night.
The last time Ahrens faced Iowa, he smashed his career high with 29 points, hitting six 3-pointers and going 9-for-9 from the free-throw line. For comparison, he hasn’t scored more than 12 points or drained more than four triples in a game since, and in a stat that feels nearly impossible, he has attempted four free throws combined in every other game he has played in his career.
Again, the Hawkeyes rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in defensive metrics, making it possible that Ahrens has another standout performance.
Three Numbers To Know
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency
Against Purdue, Ohio State turned in its best defensive performance in months – or even of the entire season. The Hawkeyes will be a helpful litmus test to see how much a defense that ranks in the lower half of the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency has improved. Fran McCafrey’s group is the conference’s top-ranked team in adjusted offensive efficiency (109.1). It also ranks second in effective field-goal percentage (50.5)
Defensive Effective Field-Goal Percentage
Few teams have struggled to slow down opposing offenses more than the Hawkeyes, who are 12th in the Big Ten with an opponent effective field-goal percentage of 51.4. Specifically, Iowa has frequently gotten harmed inside the arc. It’s 13th in the conference in defending 2-pointers, allowing teams to hit 52.2 percent of their shots from in front of the 3-point line.
A high-powered offense and a bad defense? To make up for it, Iowa likes to get up and down fast. Almost faster than everybody else in the conference.
The Hawkeyes rank second in the Big Ten in both adjusted tempo (70.1) and fastest average possession length (16.5 seconds). Ohio State, conversely, is ninth in adjusted tempo (65.8) and 11th in fastest average possession length (18.7 seconds). It’ll be a battle to control how the game is played.
- Holtmann on Thursday’s opponent: “I really believe it's the best Iowa team that we've played in our three years, and they were good last year.”
- Ahrens on his 29-point game versus Iowa a year ago: “I knew what I was capable of, which is knocking down shots. I got in the game and the way they play defense kind of creates a lot of open looks for me. It was a fun game. I kind of felt it coming, honestly. I had a feeling going into that game. I don't know why – it was weird.”
- Ahrens on whether he has anything framed from his 29-point outburst: “Nah, it's framed pretty well in my memory, though. I've got it down in my memory pretty well. It was a good memory.”
- Ahrens on his health after a recovery from an offseason back surgery bled into the season: “I feel great. Honestly, the first two months of the season, probably three months of the season, I just wasn't me.”
- Holtmann on facing Iowa then Maryland: “Busy week ahead of us with two outstanding teams here. First up, at Iowa. Really respect this Iowa team.”
How It Plays Out
Ohio State seemed to show legitimate defensive growth against Purdue at home. Will progress continue on that end of the court in a tough road matchup with Iowa? That might be the difference on Thursday night.
Garza will challenge Ohio State’s frontcourt in ways nobody has yet this season. It’ll be up to Kaleb Wesson and Young to match his efficiency, which could be tough.
Prediction: Iowa 74, Ohio State 70