Iowa (20-12) vs. Tennessee (21-12)
Date: March 19, 2014
Time: 8:10 CT (pending on the length of the early game)
Location: University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, Ohio
TV: TruTV (Mediacom 869, DirecTV 246, Dish 242)
Line: Iowa -2
Five things about Iowa-Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament Wednesday night:
(1) Yes, Iowa makes its first appearance in the tournament since 2006, but the Hawkeyes haven't actually won a tournament game since 2001. Obviously, the circumstances surrounding the Hawkeyes' game with Tennessee are slightly different -- it's not often that you play a team of your caliber in the first round of the Dance -- there is still something historic about tonight's outcome. And with a base of supporters hungry for any bit of good on-court news and riding high on the good off-court news from this morning, the stage looks set for the comeback to begin again.
(2) That's not to say it will be easy. Tennessee is just about the worst potential matchup that Iowa could have hoped for. The Vols are 21-12, but their high efficiency ratings at both ends of the court have them ranked 11th in the final Kenpom pre-tournament rankings. There are only three teams with double-digit loss totals ranked ahead of Iowa. Tennessee is one of them. The Vols are led by 6'6 senior guard-forward Jordan McRae, who scores 18.6 points per game and takes a somewhat-absurd 31 percent of Tennessee shot attempts. Fellow forward Jarnell Stokes is averaging a double-double, with 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per contest. Senior Jeronne Maymon (6'8, 260, 10.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and junior Josh Richardson (6'6, 190, 9.2 ppg) are the other two scoring threats from Tennessee, but the Vols go about seven-deep in a typical game. Tennessee's size allows for versatility, as well: The Vols' entire rotation is between 6'2 and 6'8, and just one player is under 6'5.
(3) Cuonzo Martin, who used to be at Missouri State before taking the Tennessee job for the 2011-12 season, mixes up his defenses effectively between man and zone, and the Vols are one of the most efficient defensive teams in the country. Opponents shoot at just a 45.9 percent effective rate against them, and just 43.9 percent on two-point shots. It's the most easily-identifiable statistical correlation between winning and losing against the Vols: Tennessee is 1-7 in games where its opponent has shot at a 50 percent or higher effective rate. Just one opponent has shot lower than 47 percent against the Vols and won, and that opponent was Florida. Iowa has shot 51.4 percent for the season, for what it's worth.
Once the shot goes up, Tennessee makes sure its opponent doesn't get a second chance; the Volunteers are even better rebounders than Iowa at both ends of the court. Tennessee doesn't force turnovers, and they don't foul. They contest shots inside the paint and force perimeter scoring to beat them. And Iowa has shown it is more than capable of falling into that trap.
(4) At the end of the day, this game could be about tempo. Early in the season, Iowa showed an uncanny ability to force defense-first opponents like Northwestern and Ohio State into up-tempo shootouts. Iowa's first five Big Ten games went over 70 possessions, which has been a sort-of magic number for the Hawkeyes (Iowa's 15-5 in games with 70 possessions or more). But after the Purdue win, Iowa's tempo stats plummeted: Michigan State was played at a respectable 68 possessions, but the Hawkeyes mustered just 59 each against Illinois and Northwestern. The low possession numbers combined with tepid shooting, poor defensive form, and overall bad luck led to close losses.
Tennessee wants this game to stay below 60 possessions more than anything. The Volunteers play at an adjusted 63 possessions per game (from the B1G, only Michigan, Illinois, and Northwestern are as slow), and have not been forced above 70 since January 22. Tennessee does not have a significant perimeter threat -- McRae is their best outside shooter at just 37 percent for the season, and the team as a whole shoots a tepid 32.9 percent from behind the arc -- but Iowa's last handful of opponents have shown that patience and ball movement can turn Iowa's defense to molten goo and leave open shots available. And patience is a virtue that Tennessee owns.
(5) The irony of this game is in just how unlucky these two teams are. Kenpom measures luck by the deviation between a team's actual winning percentage and the expected percentage based on its efficiency figures. As Pomeroy explains it, "Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win (or lose) all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky (or unlucky)." By that measure, Iowa is the unluckiest major-conference team in the country and unluckiest in the field of 68. Tennessee is third in each of those measures (only Oklahoma State and Iowa are more unlucky than the Vols). Iowa is 2-8 in games decided by six points or fewer; Tennessee is 0-5. Iowa is 1-2 in overtime games this year; Tennessee is 0-1. These are two teams that have not figured out how to close the deal, and the Vols might be even worse at it than Iowa. Of course, it looks like Iowa got some luck Wednesday morning, and the hope has to be that it will carry over to Wednesday night.