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NCAA Tournament: How Far Will Iowa Advance In the South?

Breaking down the Hawkeyes’ bracket

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa came into the Big Ten Tournament with less momentum than any team in the league. It had been a long time (since February 1) since the Hawkeyes had won a game that hadn’t come down to a buzzer-beater or gone to overtime. But the Hawkeyes bounced back and eviscerated Illinois before falling to Michigan. Have the Hawkeyes righted the ship, or will their late-season swoon continue?

Opening Round

There are several first round games that stand out. Minnesota vs. Louisville, because of the Pitino connection. Ja Morant and Murray State against Markus Howard and Marquette. But I think Iowa-Cincinnati is the most intriguing Thursday/Friday game on the docket, and it’s because the two teams are not only very evenly matched, but because they play very different styles.

Iowa wants to play fast and shoot the ball often, and they’ll shoot it really well when they do. There were only two teams in the Big Ten who played at a pace above the national average, and Iowa was one of them (the other was Illinois). In contrast, Cincinnati was one of the 20 slowest-paced teams in the country.

The Bearcats are built like a team that’s bad at shooting but knows it and therefore compensates in any way they can. Slow pace is part of that, and so is excellent defense. But the Bearcats also make the most of every offensive possession, committing fewer live-ball turnovers than anyone in the country except Michigan, and grabbing more offensive rebounds than any power conference team except Baylor.

The Bearcats lacked a signature win all season until Selection Sunday, when they knocked off Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Bearcats in the AAC championship game. For the most part Mick Cronin’s squad has played to expectations, with only one bad loss at East Carolina. Iowa, meanwhile has a home win against Michigan (by 15) and a home loss against Rutgers (14). In other words, the Bearcats are who they are, and this game will come down to Iowa.

Can Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon get hot from deep? Can Tyler Cook and Luka Garza win the battle of the boards against the Bearcat front line? Can the Hawkeyes dictate pace, or will trying to do so result in too many bad looks early in the shot clock? The game will come down to those questions. I have this one as a pick’em. Be sure to watch.

If They Advance

Tennessee will almost certainly be the Hawkeyes’ second-round opponent, should they advance. I don’t feel good about Iowa’s chances in this game at all. By KenPom rankings, Tennessee’s worst loss this season was to Kansas. The Volunteers are not a squad that’s prone to letdowns; if they are better than you on paper, they’re going to win.

And they are way, way better than Iowa on paper. Every single player on their roster is shooting above 50% from inside the arc. Admiral Schofield hits 42% of his three-pointers, and he shoots a lot of them. Iowa is a team that gets to the foul line a lot. Their top two free-throw shooters (Garza and Bohannon) have combined to make 219 foul shots on the year. Tennessee’s top two (Schofield and Grant Williams) have combined to make 343.

Looking at the stats, I don’t see any areas where Iowa will have a decided advantage. Anything they do well, Tennessee does better, and Tennessee is good-to-mediocre in the areas where the Hawkeyes tend to struggle. The Volunteers’ three-point defense is somewhat suspect, and Iowa’s best chance to win is to chuck a lot of triples, but that’s also a recipe for getting blown out if the shots don’t fall.

Overall

Iowa hasn’t made the Sweet Sixteen since Dr. Tom Davis’ last season in 1999. That’s a streak that no doubt frustrates Hawkeye fans, and it’s a streak that’s likely to continue for at least one more season. But the Hawkeyes will bring back every major contributor next season, so there’s reason for optimism, even if Iowa ends the 2019 season by losing ugly.