Kevin C. Cox
Basketball and margaritas!
Iowa (4-0) vs. Western Kentucky (2-1)
Date: November 20, 2012
Time: 8:30 pm CT
Location: Tropical Cancun, Mexico
Television: CBS Sports Network
Line: Iowa -7
The interminable Cancun Challenge finally moves to Cancun, where Iowa faces Western Kentucky Tuesday night. The Hilltoppers enter the game ranked 149th at Kenpom.com, and are one of the favorites in the Sun Belt. WKU lost its opener in overtime to Southern Miss, then recorded double-digit wins over Austin Peay and Western Carolina. While those might sound like tomato cans, all three WKU opponents have higher ratings than any team Iowa's played to date.
Western Kentucky has a history of upsets, especially in tournaments. You might remember this from the 2008 NCAA Tournament, where the Hilltoppers were a 12 seed against fifth-seeded Drake. Last season, Western Kentucky's tournament magic was used at the Sun Belt Championships, where the seventh-seeded Hilltoppers won four games in four days to earn themselves a ticket to a play-in game despite a 16-19 overall record. After a 5-11 start to the 2011-12 season, WKU fired coach Ken McDonald and replaced him with now-head coach Ken Harper; since then, the Hilltoppers are 18-10.
Four starters return from that team, led by senior guard Jamal Crook (19.7 ppg, 5.0 apg, 5.0 rpg) and sophomore forward George Fant (12.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg). Sophomore guard T.J. Price (13.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg) has increased his productivity to make up for the absence of Derrick Gordon, who transferred to UMass this offseason.
The Hilltoppers play small and fast: Through three games, their six most-used players are all under 6'6", and center Teeng Akol (16.3 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) is the only player in their nine-man rotation over 6'8". Their Kenpom tempo statistic (70.6) ranks 30th nationally (by way of comparison, Iowa is 67th at 68.9), and they are especially proficient at three-point defense. Western Kentucky plays a lot of man-to-man defense, though we've seen that Iowa's current personnel is enough to make devout man-to-man teams go zone. WKU doesn't block many shots, and they don't cause too many turnovers. They force low-percentage shots and rebound well. Much like the Gardner-Webb game, Iowa is going to have to be productive in the paint if they are to win, which once again means Aaron White, Zach McCabe, and Adam Woodbury will be key.