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Iowa Basketball: Hawkeyes Prepare to Take on Cincinnati in Neutral Site Action

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The Hawkeyes bested the Bearcats in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Can Fran McCaffery’s squad repeat this performance again on Saturday night?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Iowa Hawkeyes vs Cincinnati Bearcats Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa basketball team’s rigorous non-conference schedule has finally reached its conclusion (no, Kennesaw State doesn’t count) with a rematch from last season’s NCAA tournament. On March 22, the 10th seeded Hawkeyes rode hot shooting nights from Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp to an upset of the 7th seeded Cincinnati Bearcats in the round of 64. They will try to repeat this performance when they take on Cincinnati again this Saturday night.

Iowa aspires to play meaningful basketball games for the second March in a row, and this matchup presents them with a perfect opportunity to prepare for such a game. Not only is this contest being played on a neutral site (Chicago’s United Center), but it comes against a talented Bearcat team that finally appears to have found its footing under new coach John Brannan after Wednesday night’s 78-66 win over the 21st ranked Tennessee Volunteers, another team Hawkeye fans should remember well from last March. Cincinnati is a proud, established program with a rich history of postseason success, and a second straight win against the Bearcats would be a tremendous sign for a young Hawkeye team searching to establish its identity in a post-Jordan Bohannon world.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in Saturday night’s game:

1. How do the Hawkeyes play without Jordan Bohannon?

While Fran McCaffery recently revealed that Joe Toussaint would replace star point guard Jordan Bohannon in the starting lineup, initial reports from the program listed the fifth starter simply as “TBD.” While this was likely just gamesmanship on McCaffery’s part, it paints an accurate picture of the state of Iowa’s team after Bohannon’s decision forgo the rest of the season in favor of hip surgery and a medical redshirt.

Bohannon’s value on offense speaks for itself. He is arguably the greatest three-point shooter in program history, and his near-limitless range stresses opposing defenses and constantly forces them to account for his presence on the court. Additionally, his agile ball-handling and deft passing make him a fantastic facilitator, while his veteran decision-making, consistency from the stripe, and clutch shooting prowess make him an asset in late-game situations. Every Hawkeye in the rotation will face greater defensive pressure in Bohannon’s absence while also being asked to carry a greater scoring load.

Toussaint will arguably face more pressure than any of his fellow starters, however. The talented freshman has displayed tantalizing athleticism and the kind of speed and handle that Iowa hasn’t had in a point guard for decades. However, the blazing speed at which Toussaint plays also makes him mistake-prone, as evidenced by his 25:16 assist to turnover ratio. Connor McCaffery will likely play the role of the primary ballhandler, but because Toussaint remains work in progress as a three point shooter (he’s shooting only 15.4% from beyond the arc), he needs the ball in his hands so he can attack the rim to be an impactful offensive player. Toussaint will need to improve his decision-making and value the basketball without sacrificing too much of his frenetic style of play that makes him so dangerous in the first place.

Fran McCaffery has had over a week since the Iowa State win to put the finishing touches on his post-Bohannon lineups, and has likely been considering how the team might play without its star point guard since he first went under the knife. Iowa’s game against Cincinnati will be the first chance for the new-look Hawkeyes to show what they’re capable of and will give fans a sense of what they might be able to expect from this team going forward.

2. Can Iowa’s offense keep up its torrid pace against a physical Cincinnati defense?

Cincinnati’s program has become synonymous with its tough, disruptive defense in recent years, and they will need to live up to their reputation to stop an Iowa offense that has been scorching the nets so far this season. The Hawkeyes were ranked by KenPom as the most efficient offense in college basketball after their victory over the Cyclones, and their attack has been buoyed by hot shooting (the Hawks are shooting over 35% from beyond the arc as a team) and unselfish ball movement which has seen them average over 17 assists per game. Luka Garza has transformed into one of the most dominant offensive forces in college basketball, while Joe Wieskamp has started to catch fire after starting the season slowly.

The Bearcats are more than capable of holding their own on defense, however. Cincinnati limited the hyper-efficient Ohio State offense to only 64 points when they played earlier this season and allowed only three made three-pointers on fifteen attempts in Wednesday’s victory over Tennessee. Power forward Tre Scott plays much bigger than his 6-8 frame on defense, while shooting guard Keith Williams has become a very active defender on the perimeter, averaging over one steal and one block per game.

Garza and Wieskamp both proved that they could be impactful players against Cincinnati’s defense during last season’s contest, but both will be much larger focal points of the defense this season without Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon to attract the Bearcats’ attention. If complimentary offensive players such as CJ Fredrick or Ryan Kriener can catch fire, the Hawkeye offense should be able to weather the increased defensive attention on its stars and keep up its torrid pace.

3. Can Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland regain his form on offense?

Bearcat star Jarron Cumberland is not having the senior season he expected when he turned down overtures from the NBA last spring. The reigning AAC Player of the Year was supposed to establish his place in the pantheon of Bearcat greats this year, especially after his cousin and former high school teammate Jaevin, a standout guard who broke out last season while playing for the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, announced he was transferring to Cincinnati.

However, Cumberland’s regression this season has been startling and has been the biggest reason behind the Bearcats’ rocky start. Cumberland’s scoring is down considerably (12.8 points a game compared to 18.8 last year) and his abysmal 34.7% shooting percentage has been a serious drag on the Bearcat offense. Cumberland is now averaging more turnovers per game (3.2) than assists (2.9), and his defensive plus/minus numbers indicate that he’s been one of the least impactful players on that side of the ball as well. Yes, Cumberland has been slowed by toe, ankle, and hip injuries, but that hardly excuses his poor play at practice leading to his benching earlier this season, or this J.R. Smith-esque brain fart that cost the Bearcats a game against Colgate.

Cumberland’s talent is not in question, and he showed how effective he could be while scoring 18 points against the Hawkeyes last season. If he regains his form, Iowa’s reinvigorated defense could be in for a serious test. If not, the Hawkeyes stand a real chance to hold the Bearcat offense in check.