Franimal Planet: Iowa-Baylor NIT Finals Preview

USA TODAY Sports

This is it: The battle for #69.

Iowa (25-12) vs. Baylor (22-14)
NIT Championship Game

Date: April 5, 2013
Time: 8:05 p.m. CT
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York City
Television: ESPN
Line: Pick 'em

So it all comes down to this: Regardless of the outcome tonight, this season is over. "Survive and advance" no longer applies. The irony of a team that spent January and February failing to get over the final hurdle in a series of "must-win" games making the sort of postseason run that Iowa has is delicious; the fact that their last "must-win" game wouldn't extend the season is just icing on the cake.

In pure Kenpom terms, Baylor was probably the third-best team in the NIT. They were also probably deserving of a better seed -- the Bears got the #2 spot in Kentucky's bracket -- but the Wildcats' upset first round loss opened the bracket for Scott Drew's crew. Any question of Baylor's desire to be in the NIT went out the window when they decimated Long Beach State 112-66 in the first round. They then took out Arizona State and Providence in home games before a victory over BYU in Tuesday's early semifinal.

Any discussion of Baylor has to start with point guard Pierre Jackson, one of the nation's most effective slashers. Jackson was the National Junior College Player of the Year two seasons ago, then led the Bears to the Elite Eight last March and picked up honorable mention all-American status for his trouble. He is averaging an absurd 19.9 points and 7.0 assists per game, and has scored 23.3 points and dished out 13.0 assists in Baylor's last three NIT games (he only played a half in the blowout of Long Beach), with a double-double in all of them. He is also getting to the free throw line at a ridiculous rate for a 5'10 point guard, averaging 12.7 free throw attempts and shooting 87% when he gets there. Jackson is fully capable of playing every minute of a game and racking up gaudy numbers if given the opportunity.

The Bears have seven players who average more than 16 minutes a game and can go ten-deep if needed. Baylor goes with a three-guard starting five, but they have plenty of inside height. Their front line is anchored by 7'1 freshman center Isaiah Austin, who matches Adam Woodbury stat for stat and manages to play 30 minutes a game. Austin scores 13.0 points per game and leads the bears with 8.3 rebounds per contest. Junior forward Corey Jefferson (6'9, 230 lbs.) contributes another 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, and the two big men combine for 3.5 blocked shots per contest. Baylor relies on 6'2 guard Brady Heslip as their sole true perimeter threat, and 6'1 guard A.J. Walton is a nice complement to Jackson, but the Bear offense really relies on their uber-talented point guard and two bigs.

The Bears run at a nearly-identical pace with Iowa, and their depth combined with Jackson's stamina could nullify Iowa's perimeter pressure, which has been extremely successful at wearing down opposing guards throughout this tournament run. On offense, the Bears shoot for modest percentages (35.1% from three, 50.8% inside the arc) and do not derive their scoring from one exclusive source. They use their three guards to limit turnovers considerably; they are one of few squads playing at a top 100 pace that also is able to hold onto the ball. Otherwise, they are good but not great at just about everything.

Defensively, Baylor plays a lot of zones. That does not indicate any zone scheme in particular; Head coach Scott Drew has been known to use a 1-1-3/2-3 matchup zone, a 1-3-1 zone, and a number of oddball one-off zones in between. Their defensive numbers are thoroughly average (78th nationally in defensive efficiency) and struggles to generate turnovers and box out on the defensive boards. Their opponents are unusually reliant on two-point goals, and are generally pretty effective at breaking the Bears down and finding good shots.

Given Baylor's reliance on the dribble drive and the inside game, I'd expect Iowa to run a lot of 2-3 zone at the Bears Thursday, giving Devyn Marble and Eric May plenty of help in handling Jackson. If and when Iowa does go man, May will likely draw the Jackson assignment with help from whoever is guarding Walton. Heslip effectively pulls a defender away from the action at all times, and Jackson will rip Iowa to shreds if its interior help rotations aren't perfect. But if Iowa can force Baylor to get sloppy on the perimeter, as it's done to so many good guards this season, and manage to limit Jackson's effectiveness in the paint, Iowa's offense should be good enough to overcome Baylor's defense. Of particular note is that Kansas neutralized Jackson with the height and quickness of Elijah Johnson earlier this year, holding him to 10 points and 4 assists on 2/12 shooting. May or Marble could be kryptonite if Iowa goes with man defense.

A game between these two teams three weeks ago would have been a battle between mirror images. But with Iowa dedicated to a big lineup with Marble at the point, the Hawkeyes hold a distinct height advantage. If the Hawkeyes shoot as effectively as they have these last three weeks and continue to dominate on the glass, they certainly have enough to see off Baylor's challenge. This might not be the best team the Hawkeyes have seen in the NIT, but this is the toughest matchup they've faced in this tournament, and Iowa will need to be firing on all cylinders if it is to take its first postseason NIT tournament title.

One game. All or nothing.

Go Hawks.

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