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Iowa takes on Dayton, Northwestern hosts Akron in NIT tonight

Both the Wildcats and Hawkeyes wll play at home with a chance to extend their seasons tonight.  Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE
Both the Wildcats and Hawkeyes wll play at home with a chance to extend their seasons tonight. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE

It's not the big dance, but tonight for the first time since December we get to see how the Big Ten fares against good teams from other conferences. We're hoping that Iowa doesn't become the first team to lose in the NIT because they are just happy to there. Northwestern, in the same bracket as Iowa, shouldn't have that problem. They're feeling slighted by being named a 4 seed after being on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament all season.

Of course, Bill Carmody is giving the impression that his men are motivated. In his press conference prior to the NIT selection show, Carmody said of his team playing its best, "I don't think they need that much convincing." That was back when we were under the impression that the 'Cats would get a 1 or 2 seed. Now that they've been disrespected, they should have all the motivation they need, but some fans are still not feeling it. Thanks to KenPom in advance for all the neat stats.

Akron at Iowa, 6:30 PM CT on ESPN

I've always wondered why the University of Dayton went by the nickname "Flyers." Turns out, the Wright brothers, who conducted the first airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, lived most of their lives in Dayton. Thanks to them, UD now has a freaking sweet mascot to go with a pretty good basketball team.

About that basketball team: Black Heart Gold Pants does a great job on the analysis, but I'll try to summarize.

Dayton is coached by the ridiculously young (and even younger looking) Archie Miller. Miller, who is 33 years old, played point guard for NC State from 1999-2002 and worked under Thad Matta at Ohio State as an assistant in 2007 before joining his brother Sean Miller's staff at Arizona in 2009. Now in his first season coaching the Flyers, Miller had coached to a 19-11 record.

In the Atlantic 10, Dayton was 2nd in offensive efficiency with 111.2 points per 100 possessions, but 11th in defensive efficiency with a 106.6 rating. The offense was hindered by a high 20.4% turnover percentage, but it reached such a high status thanks to a league-leading 39.9% offensive rebounding rate. At shooting the ball, Dayton was just 5th in conference with a 50.2% eFG rate, so the Flyers really depended a good deal on grabbing their own misses.

Ranked 25th nationally at grabbing his team's misses is junior forward Matt Kavanaugh, who snags 15.1% of available offensive boards and scores 9.1 points per game in just 23.9 minutes.

The real leader of the squad, though, is junior point guard Kevin Dillard who ranks 13th nationally in assist rate with helpers on 38.7% of his team's buckets. That means his team depends on Dillard to distribute in a similar way that Penn State depends on Tim Frazier (although I trust Dillard has better support). Like Frazier, Dillard leads his team in points (13.0 per game), assists (6.0 per game) and steals (1.4).

The other Flyer to look out for is senior forward Chris Johnson, who puts up 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds a game while shooting a very efficient 59.3% eFG rate. Not only does Johnson hit on 57.3% of his shots from inside the arc, but he can burn opponents by hitting 40.4% of threes as well. In other words, he is a threat from all over, and will likely cause problems for an Iowa squad that doesn't defend particularly well.

Dillard, though, only shoots 30.7% from three-point range, so it would behoove Iowa to give him some space when he has the ball on the perimeter. The Hawkeyes should go under any screens and not let Dillard penetrate. If he is able to do so, he'll have an easier time setting up Johnson and his other teammates.

On offense, Iowa should be aggressive on the inside. Obviously Gatens should be allowed to shoot and do his thing, but Dayton's big weakness is that they cannot help but foul. If Gatens defers just a little to Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, Iowa can likely get Dayton in foul trouble. Kavanaugh himself commits 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes. Get him with a couple of fouls early, and the rebounding situation gets a whole lot easier.

Of course, Dayton isn't great at defending field goals either, so if Gatens is feeling it, I wouldn't mess with him. Fran McCaffery should be aware, though, that there are other ways to beat Dayton. If White and Melsahn Basabe have good games rebounding the ball on defense and drawing fouls on offense, Iowa looks like a good bet.

Akron at Northwestern, 8:00 PM CT on ESPN2

Akron's sports teams are known as the Zips. I remember being surprised when I showed up to my very first Penn State football game and saw a kangaroo patrolling the sideline. I'm still not sure why the mascot Zippy is a kangaroo (she has been around since 1953), but I can tell you that Zips is short for "zippers," which was voted as the school nickname in 1925.

Apparently "zippers" was the name of a popular rubber overshoe that was created by the BF Goodrich company in Akron during the 1920s. That doesn't have much relevance today, but it's way more unique than naming your team "Wildcats," and Zippy the kangaroo did win Capital One Mascot of the Year in 2007, so score one for Akron.

Keith Dambrot is the coach of the Zips, and he's famous for coaching LeBron James during his final two years as the coach of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. Now back at his alma mater, Dambrot has done a fine job with NCAA Tournament bids in 2009 and 2011, as well as seven 20-win seasons in a row.

On the basketball court, the Zips feature Zeke Marshall, a 7-foot tall junior who blocks 2.8 shots per game and ranks 16th in the country in KenPom's block percentage. Marshall also leads the team in scoring 10.2 points per game and is second in rebounding with 5.3 per game.

Besides shooting 53% from the field, Marshall helps Akron by getting to the line quite often. Compared to his 215 field goal attempts, Marshall has shot 152 free throws. That's good for a 70.7% free throw rate, which is 25th in the country. Of course, a lot of tall players are targets for fouls because of their poor free throw shooting, but Marshall doesn't kill his team there; he actually shoots 70% once he gets to the stripe.

Led by Marshall's free throw shooting, Akron has scored more points per possession than any team in the MAC. While Bill Carmody's Wildcats have made a habit of avoiding fouls this season (only 29.9% FT rate against), they aren't exactly built to handle a specimen like Marshall. Thanks to the 6'11" Luka Mircovic going down with an ankle injury earlier in the season, Northwestern's Davide Curletti will need to work overtime to just try to contain Marshall. Look for Northwestern to employ lots and lots of zone defense to keep the ball away from Marshall.

Of course, the problem with zone defense is that it's easy to shoot over, and Akron can shoot a bit. Point guard Alex Abreu may only average 9.8 points on the season, but he's outperformed those numbers lately, with double figure scoring in 6 of Akron's last 7 games. He also shoots 44.3% from beyond the arc on the year, including makes on 6 of his last 7 three-point attempts. Abreu is also skilled in the passing and defense departments, as evidenced by his 4.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

While Abreu and Marshall highlight the Zips, they are a very deep team. Nine Akron players average at least 15 minutes per game. Senior forward Nikola Cvetinovic average 9.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, while sophomore Brian Walsh scores 8.2 points per game while shooting 45.5% from three-point range. Freshmen Demetrius Treadwell and Nick Harney will probably see time as well.

On defense, Akron has been good at limiting their opponents' three-point shooting, but Northwestern should be able to give them trouble with John Shurna, Drew Crawford and Dave Sobolewski. Should Marshall be drawn out to the perimeter by the shooting forwards, it will certainly help mitigate the risk of blocked shots.

Over at the MAC blog Hustle Belt, they are quite bullish on the visiting Zips.

The Zips are built quite a bit like a Big Ten team. There is a lot of inside power, and a strong guard to guide it all. It is a style that Northwestern is used to playing -- and losing -- against.

This is not to say that Akron has the skill of those top tier Big Ten squads, but they have the personnel to make things difficult.

You never get used to playing a 7-footer. You never get used to playing against a deep bench where no one gets tired. And you can't prepare for it in two days.

I agree that it will be tough for Northwestern. They will have to find a healthy balance between containing Marshall and guarding against the outside shooters. However, the game is in Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats have been using their shooting skill to overcome opponents all season long. If it's motivated, Northwestern should find a way to win.