Hawks open Big Ten Conference Tournament against Northwestern

Iowa looks to top scorers Marble and White as post-season play begins.
Iowa looks to top scorers Marble and White as post-season play begins.

By: Brad Fuson

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Hawkeyes come into their first-round matchup looking to right the ship and regain momentum lost in the last month of the season. The black and gold were only able to muster two wins in the previous 30 days, with those coming against Big Ten bottom-feeders Penn State and Purdue. The 2-5 record since February 22 looms ominously in the minds of the Hawkeye faithful, but none of that matters now.

Thursday night's game against the Northwestern Wildcats (ESPN2, 8 pm ET) is a much needed fresh start – one in which Fran and the boys seek to re-discover the magic they had during their 16-5 start to the season. The aforementioned magic shouldn't be too hard to come by against a less-than-stellar Northwestern squad that Iowa posted two double-digit drubbings against earlier in the season. The Hawks' late-season crumble came with the loss of their defensive identity, but with the Wildcats finishing dead last in the conference with 59.6 points-per-game they're poised to get back on track and build confidence heading into the next round.

On the flip side, the Hawkeyes lead the league in scoring with a blistering 82.6 points per game, which is more than six points higher than second-place Michigan State – who Iowa will look forward to playing on Friday barring a Wildcats upset.

The offense is led by senior and all-Big Ten first-team guard Roy Devyn Marble, the sixth-highest scorer in school history averaging 17 points per game. For Iowa to make a deep run not only in the conference tournament, but in the NCAA tournament as well, he'll have to show up and show up big.

But no one player can do it alone. The Hawks need junior jack-of-all-trades Aaron White to be Marble's running mate; White, shooting a Big Ten best 58.8 percent from the floor, provides versatility as a 6'8 wing who can shoot it from the outside and go to work in the post as well. Along with his scoring prowess, White may be Iowa's best off-dribble player and is able to wreak havoc on the defensive end with his length.

Big men Melsahn Basabe and Gabe Olaseni will prove crucial throughout the post-season if Iowa plans to make a deep run with both locking down the paint on defense and crashing the boards on the other end. Sharpshooters Mike Gesell and Josh Oglesby will need to stretch the floor and extend the Iowa offense as well. If you haven't caught on by now, the Hawks are not only one of the deepest, most talented teams in the conference, but in the nation. However, talent and production don't always go hand in hand, as proven by the disappointing end to the regular season.

The Hawks limp rather than fly into Thursday's matchup against Northwestern, but none of that matters now. Now it's one game at a time; the mantra similar to that of the great Jim Valvano-led 1983 N.C. State Wolfpack men's basketball squad -- "survive and advance" -- which is exactly what this Iowa squad aims to do.

Final prediction: Iowa – 77 Northwestern – 61.

Fight! Fight! Fight! for IOWA!