I write this on Sunday, the eve of Iowa's home contest against No. 5 Indiana - which happens to be on New Year's Eve.
Lame word play aside, this is obviously the biggest game of the Hawkeyes' season thus far and a contest that could prove to be their most significant of the season. There are plenty of reasons why.
Monday is Iowa's Big Ten opener. Getting off to a good start is always crucial, especially when a road game against Michigan and a home game against Michigan State await immediately following the date with the Hoosiers.
It's a chance to knock off a top five team and do so in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which would be another big step for Fran McCaffery's rebuild of the program.
But what exactly is it going to take for a win, besides the obvious of playing good basketball? Let's take a look at Iowa's recent performances in games against top-five competition and see.
The data I was able to look at for Iowa's history against top-five teams goes back to 1996:
As you can see, Iowa is 4-17 (.190) in its last 21 games against teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll, which actually isn't a bad figure considering these games are against the toughest of competition. One oddity: Iowa actually had slightly more success when these games were played on the road, going 2-5 away from home while going 1-5 at Carver-Hawkeye. The rest of the games were played at neutral sites, including two NCAA Tournament games against Kentucky in 1997 and Connecticut in 1999.
So without further ado, if Iowa is going to follow a similar recipe to what it used in its last four top-five wins to beat Indiana, here's what the Hawkeyes need to do on Monday:
Outshoot the opponent, preferably by a significant margin.
This sort of goes without saying to win any basketball game, but sometimes you can beat mediocre and worse teams despite poor shooting performances. But against elite teams, a win despite bad shooting is simply usually out of the question.
Here's another illustration of Iowa's statistics in those four wins from above. Notice the field-goal percentage for the Hawkeyes (more toward the left) and for the opponents (toward the right):
Iowa outshot its opponent in each of these games, with three margins by at least 6.5 percent. The Hawkeyes shot 48.4 percent in the four victories compared to their opponents shooting only 39.1 percent - a pretty strong disparity.
But these teams are highly ranked for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that they typically aren't susceptible to poor shooting performances like these very often. Indiana will be no different. The Hoosiers rank third in the country with a 52.2 team field-goal shooting percentage. Iowa ranks 106th at 45.1 percent.
The Hawkeyes will likely need to shoot at least marginally better than their season average while playing defense well enough to hold Indiana well below its own average. Off-days from a couple Hoosiers players wouldn't hurt, either.
This is more of a bullet under the first point as it also pertains to shooting, but it's more specific. The disparity in this category in Iowa's last four wins against top-five teams was also much more significant.
Iowa shot a blistering 54.4 percent from 3-point range in those four wins while opponents went cold, shooting 25.6 percent. Only UConn in November of 2009 shot better than 30.0 percent from 3-point range.
Again, seeing this trend continue with Indiana could be pretty unlikely. The Hoosiers also rank third in the country with their 42.1 percent 3-point shooting this season.
Indiana has also been particularly hot of late, going 31 for 61 from 3 in its last four games (50.8 percent). You can take that two ways: Iowa is in trouble because Indiana's shooters are on fire, or Iowa could luck out because the Hoosiers are due for a bad shooting day.
Slow down opposing team's best scorer
In each of Iowa's last four wins against top-five opponents, the other team's best scorer had a poor performance, whether it was a low point total, a bad shooting percentage, or both. Here's the stat line for the top scorer from each team, with their season averages in parentheses:
Chad Austin, Purdue: 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting (17.0 ppg, 42.7%)
Khalid El-Amin, UConn: 26 points on 9-of-24 shooting (16.0 ppg, 41.1%)
Michael Redd, Ohio State: 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting (17.3 ppg, 43.6%)
Kareem Rush, Missouri: 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting (19.8 ppg, 42.6%)
As you can see, all the above players struggled to some extent below their season averages, with El-Amin and Rush both being particularly inefficient.
All four players were guards, so Monday's task is a little different in slowing down Indiana's 7-footer, Cody Zeller. Zeller is averaging 16.4 points per game and his 62.6 field-goal percentage ranks 13th in the country. Obviously guards are a lot more susceptible to bad shooting days since they commonly rely on jump shooting much more. So Iowa will likely simply have to play good defense against Zeller.
Because Indiana shoots so well from the perimeter, zone defense might not be much of an option to help neutralize him.
Get a strong individual performance of your own
I'll add "efficient" next to strong as another qualifier here. Obviously El-Amin, above, had a big scoring day for Connecticut against Iowa with 26 points, but he did so on 9-of-26 shooting, so the point total was a little misleading.
In three of Iowa's four wins, the Hawkeyes got pretty stellar individual performances, highlighted by Luke Recker's game against Mizzou in 2001:
Jacob Jaacks vs. UConn: 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, six rebounds, two assists
Dean Oliver vs. Ohio State: 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting, three rebounds, two assists
Recker vs. Missouri: 31 points on 10-of-17 shooting (4-of-5 3-point shooting), four rebounds, two assists, two steals
The only exception to the rule was in Iowa's win against Purdue in 1997, when four players each scored 12 or more points. Ricky Davis, Kyle Galloway, ryan Bowen, and Kent McCausland combined to score 56 points on 19-of-33 shooting from the floor. That's strong.
So in review, based on recent history, Iowa needs to shoot well - particularly from 3-point range while Indiana struggles, the Hawkeyes need to shut down Cody Zeller, and one Iowa player likely needs to play a bit above his capabilities.
All much easier said than done.
You can follow Jordan Garretson on Twitter here and visit his Iowa basketball blog, "No Beer in Heaven."
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