Franimal Planet: Iowa vs. Virginia NIT Preview

USA TODAY Sports

It's only the quarterfinal, but Wednesday night will crown an NIT frontrunner.

Iowa Hawkeyes (23-12) at Virginia Cavaliers (23-11)

Date: March 27, 2013
Time: 6:00 p.m. CT
Location: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA
Television: ESPN2
Line: Virginia -4

We rely pretty heavily on Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats in previewing basketball games, so when the man himself says something like this, we take notice:

Pomeroy says that for good reason: Both Iowa and Virginia are in his current top 25. They are the two highest-rated teams in the NIT, and one of them will be getting one of its four best wins of the season tonight along with a trip to Madison Square Garden.

The most glaring statistic is much more simple than anything Kenpom is working with. Virginia is one of the nation's best home teams, going 20-1 at John Paul Jones Arena and Beached Privateer this season, with 19 consecutive home wins. The Cavaliers have recorded home victories against Duke, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maryland, and (most recently) St. John's. Iowa, on the other hand, has struggled on the road, with a paltry two wins in seven true road games. That alone should be the source of the four-point spread in Virginia's favor.

The Cavaliers have used a four-guard lineup in the first two rounds of the NIT and most of the last month, heavy on tall slashers on the perimeter. The Cavaliers are led by 6'6 guard Joe Harris, who is averaging 16.4 points per game with 4.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Harris' height and effectiveness from the perimeter -- he is a 42.6% three point shooter -- make him a matchup nightmare. Another 6'6 guard, freshman Justin Anderson, has averaged just 7.1 points per game, but has scored 33 and dished out eight assists in the team's two NIT games. Senior point guard Jontel Evans hands out 5.0 assists per game, though he does turn it over 2.3 times per contest, as well. The fourth guard, 6'6 Paul Jesperson, is a bit of an enigma: He plays 25 minutes a game, but takes just five shots per game, averages only 4.8 points per contest, and makes no other significant statistical contribution.

The only time Virginia went big in the month of March ended in a 19-point ACC Tournament loss to NC State, and Virginia is a far more effective team when it goes small. The only forward starting for Virginia through most of March is 6'8 Akil Mitchell, who is averaging a double double over the month and has posted a 13 point, nine rebound line for the season. When Virginia goes big, it adds 6'11 freshman Mike Tobey (6.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg in 13.6 minutes) to the mix. The Cavaliers can go up to ten-deep if necessary, and play nine guys for more than ten minutes a game, but Tobey is the only one over 6'8.

That lack of interior height has had little effect on Virginia's interior defense, though. Head coach Tony Bennett used vigorous interior defense and a tortoise-like tempo to get Washington State back-to-back top four NCAA Tournament seeds in the late 2000s, and is using it to great effect now at Virginia. The Cavaliers allow just 42.5% shooting on two-point attempts, 17th nationally. They block a lot of shots -- not at the same rate as Iowa, but about one in eight attempts -- and force generally poor shooting on everything that isn't blocked. Virginia's defensive efficiency ranks 13th nationally; that defense, combined with their sluggish tempo, has led to a lot of ugly, first-to-50 slugfests. Virginia has allowed its opponent to score 60 points in eight games; they are 3-5 in those games.

On the offensive side of the ball, Virginia is only defined by its slothlike tempo. The Cavaliers are effective three point shooters as a whole (38.3% from behind the arc) but are not wholly reliant on the outside shot to win. Virginia does not get to the free throw line at a particularly high rate, and is mediocre once it is there. The Cavaliers also do not crash the offensive boards at all, preferring to fall back and set up their stifling defense.

Iowa presents a significant matchup issue for Virginia, in that the Hawkeyes could go big across the front line and either force Virginia to its bench for help or leave a 6'6 guard covering Melsahn Basabe or Aaron White, and could force a guy who plays only 14 minutes a game to cover both Adam Woodbury and Gabriel Olaseni. But tonight's game will not be decided by the offensive stylings of Woodbury or Olaseni. Tonight's game will be decided with tempo. If Iowa can force Virginia into running -- primarily by forcing turnovers on the perimeter, because the odds of a fast break off a Virginia missed shot look long -- and make Virginia's offense score to win, Iowa has a better-than-average chance of taking this game. But if Virginia is able to impose its pace on Iowa and drag the game into the no man's land that is Iowa's halfcourt offense, the Hawkeyes will face a significant uphill battle. It's not that the first team to 60 will win, because Virginia can usually score 61 if it needs to. It's that if neither team gets to 60, Iowa loses.

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