It's Tournament Time!
The Iowa Hawkeyes are in the Big Dance, and now seems like good time to take a glance back before we look ahead. One year ago, Iowa fans were very unhappy. Their team had just dropped an overtime game to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament and found themselves on the outside looking in when the NCAA tournament bracket was unveiled. Iowa accumulated 14 wins compared to their 19 losses and had a number of questions entering the offseason.
Today, Iowa fans are looking forward to another game and another opportunity. The Hawks are still playing for something. To date, they have accumulated 22 wins this year against 11 losses and spent much of the season ranked in the AP Top 25. I bring all of this up to put some perspective on the week gone by and the week to come. This team has come a long way from a year ago, and for a team where the roster remained largely unchanged from a year ago, that is quite a spectacular feat. Now, let's look back at Iowa's Big Ten tournament.
The Week in Review
March 14, 2019, 8:54 P.M. CT
Iowa Hawkeyes 83 Illinois Fighting Illini 62
Final Betting Line: Iowa -4.5
Following a 21-10 regular season, Iowa received the 6 seed for the Big Ten Tournament on began play on Thursday against the Fighting Illini of Illinois. Last week, I predicted that Illinois would be the more difficult of the two potential matchups, with the other being Northwestern, and for much of the first half it looked like that prediction would come to fruition. Iowa carried a 6 point lead into halftime in a game that felt like it just as easily could have been tied. Following halftime, Iowa played like a team possessed and pulled away to cruise to a 21 point victory.
In the process, Iowa did a ton of great things. Iowa shot a spectacular 52% from behind the 3-point arc and matched that by shooting 52% from inside the arc as well. They grabbed 11 offensive rebounds compared to Illinois' 7 and forced 15 Illinois turnovers, while only turning the ball over 8 times themselves.
Outside of the measurable stats, Thursday night felt different that the previous 3 weeks of games. Iowa seemed to be playing more relaxed basketball. They seemed connected on both offense and defense, and quite frankly, it looked like they were having a ton of fun. This time of year, the things that can't be measured on a stat sheet are just as, if not more, important than the number of shots you, and the game against Illinois showed me this Iowa team still knows how to do those things.
March 15, 2019, 8:27 P.M. CT
Michigan Wolverines 74 Iowa Hawkeyes 53
Final Betting Line: Michigan -8.0
In a way, the Big Ten Tournament was the perfect illustration of Iowa's season. Thursday night against Illinois was the early season, when Iowa went undefeated in the non-conference and played really well through a dominant win over Michigan at Carver on February 1. Friday's game against Michigan was the season since February 1.
On Friday, Iowa looked outmatched, but didn't really have any blatant self-inflicted wounds. They generated more offensive rebounds than Michigan and Michigan only hauled down 3 more rebounds in total than Iowa. Iowa generated a fair number of opportunities from the free throw line and only turned the ball over 11 times, which is right around their season average for turnovers in a game.
The two factors that really led to the drubbing by Michigan were Iowa's extremely poor shooting from behind the 3-point line and poor rotations early in the game. Iowa went an abysmal 1 of 16 from behind the 3-point line (6%) and the one that Iowa made was in the last minute of the game, when the game was already well in hand for Michigan. In contrast, Michigan was 10 of 30 from behind the 3-point line (33%) and a few of those came right out of the chute. Early in this game, Iowa seemed a step slow on their defensive rotations and allowed some wide-open 3's to get Michigan started. As the first half progressed, the defense seemed to improve and the rotations were better, but by then the damage had been done and Michigan was red hot. Michigan's shooters got going and Iowa was in for a long night.
A Look Ahead
On Sunday, Iowa was selected as the 10-seed in the South Region and will play the 7th seeded University of Cincinnati Bearcats out of the American Athletic Conference on Friday, March 22 at 11:15 A.M. CT. Cincinnati enters the tournament at 28-6 and finished 2nd in the American Conference behind only the Houston Cougars. The Bearcats present considerable challenges for Iowa, but also present a number of opportunities.
First, the challenges. At a 7-seed, Cincinnati is criminally underseeded and more likely deserved a 4 or 5 seed. Seemingly to make up for this, the Bearcats will be the de facto home team, with fans having to travel just over 100 miles to cheer on their team in Columbus. On the court, Cincinnati presents a unique combination of problems. On offense, Cincinnati likes to slow the game down, ranking in the bottom 20 nationally in possessions per game. On defense, Cincinnati tries to speed their opponents up and applies a great deal of pressure to ball handlers. The Bearcats also pride themselves on offensive rebounds, ranking 11th in the country in thay category. Cincinnati will lean heavily on Senior guard Jarron Cumberland, who averages nearly 19 points a game and has accounted for approximately 25% of the Bearcats' offense this season.
Despite all their strengths, the Bearcats also have some weaker spots that Iowa can take advantage of. As one of the byproducts of being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, Cincinnati does not shoot the ball well, ranking 291st in field goal percentage and 147th in the nation in 3-point percentage. Iowa should also have a decided advantage over Cincinnati from the 3-point line, where the Bearcats struggle to defend, ranking 273rd in 3-pointers allowed and 274th in 3-point percentage.
In my mind, there are two keys to an Iowa victory, and a 2nd round matchup with the winner of Tennessee/Colgate. The first is offensive rebounds and the 2nd chance points that Cincinnati generates as a result. To beat a team like Cincinnati, who doesn't shoot the ball particularly well and crashes the offensive glass, Iowa needs to finish defensive possessions. Iowa needs 5 guys blocking out and going after rebounds on every defensive possession. They aren't going to eliminate the Bearcats 2nd chance opportunities, but they have to limit them. The second thing that has to happen for an Iowa win is the Hawks have to shoot the ball better. Because of the struggles that Iowa has had on the defensive end of the floor, they will have little to no chance if they turn in another 1 of 16 performance from behind the 3-point line. I would look for the magic number to be 8 made 3's. If Iowa can make 8 3-pointers and keep their shooting percentage in the 30-40% range in doing so, they will have a really good chance of beating Cincinnati.
All told, I expect Iowa to be dancing to the Round of 32, with a matchup against 2-seed Tennessee looming. Despite all the struggles they have had in recent, I think the Iowa that showed up against Illinois shows up in Columbus on Friday. Cincinnati is stylistically a very solid matchup for Iowa, and one that should allow Iowa's stumbling offense to flourish. They don't defend the perimeter well, an area where Iowa typically fairs pretty well, and aren't particularly potent on offense, something that really aids Iowa's efforts. I see this being a close game late that Iowa salts away at the free throw line. Iowa 72 Cincinnati 65
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