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Iowa Basketball’s Path to the Sweet Sixteen Goes Through Downtown

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Can the Hawkeyes rediscover their three-point shooting prowess in time to make a run in the NCAA Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Iowa David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Picture this: the Iowa men’s basketball team finally ends its NCAA tournament drought by earning a #10 seed. Matched up against the seventh-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats, the Hawkeyes’ potent offensive attack grinds to a halt as they struggle to adjust to their opponent’s stout interior defense. Iowa’s three-point shooting, which has been an essential component of its offensive success for much of the season, goes cold when the Hawkeyes need it the most, as they shoot only 5-17 from beyond the arc. Iowa falls to Cincinnati by the score of 76-64, ending the Hawkeyes’ tournament run before it can even begin.

No, this is not a prediction of how the Hawkeyes might fare in their upcoming matchup against Cincinnati in the Round of 64—it is actually a recounting of Iowa’s loss to Cincinnati in that same round in 2005. However, Iowa may be in for a similar fate in this year’s tournament if its current streak of abysmal three-point shooting continues.

The Hawkeyes need to be able to hit the three consistently for their offense to function effectively. Iowa has sputtered towards the end of the season by losing five of its last six games, a stretch during which it shot a lowly 26% (30 for 112) from beyond the arc in its losses. The Hawkeyes’ two games in the Big Ten tournament serve as a perfect encapsulation of the difference that perimeter shooting can make for the team’s offensive fortunes. Iowa scored 83 points in its win over Illinois on the back of its 12-23 (52%) three-point shooting performance, but mustered only 53 points in its loss against Michigan while shooting a putrid 1-16 (.63%) from deep.

Iowa’s prolonged three-point shooting drought would have seemed impossible at various points this season. The Hawkeyes posted their best three-point shooting performance in 21 years in a win over Illinois in January, gave defenses fits with hot-shooting stretch fives in Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener, and had a player in Isaiah Moss who previously ranked second in the conference in three-point shooting percentage. The clutch three-point shooting of Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp was responsible for multiple victories this season, and it is unlikely that the Hawkeyes would have received an NCAA tournament bid without making three-pointers at critical moments.

The Hawkeyes will need to recapture some of this magic from deep if they hope to upset Cincinnati on Friday. Led by 6-11 center Nyesir Brooks and bolstered by tenacious 6-8 forward Tre Scott, the Bearcats boast one of the top interior defenses in the nation. The Bearcats have held opponents to a lowly 44% shooting percentage on two-point attempts and rank 25th in the nation in blocks with 153 on the season. The Bearcats have built their defense around stout interior defenders and quick guards on the perimeter who can stick with opposing ballhandlers as they attempt to drive into the paint, and these efforts have paid off, allowing Cincinnati to hold opponents to only 62.2 points-per-game.

Iowa’s post offense will hardly find a reprieve should it manage to best the Bearcats in Friday’s matchup. Should they advance, the Hawkeyes would likely face the 2nd-seeded Tennessee Volunteers in the next round, a team whose interior defense may be even more formidable than Cincinnati’s. As decorated as Tyler Cook and Luka Garza are on the offensive block, Tennessee’s Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander are equally accomplished post defenders that have proven more than capable of making life difficult for opposing big men. The Volunteers rank 4th in the nation in total blocks with 184 on the season and have held opponents to the 11th-lowest shooting percentage on two-point attempts over the course of the year.

While Iowa’s big men are too skilled offensively to be completely shut down by either Cincinnati or Tennessee, a year’s worth of elite interior defense by both of these teams suggests that the Hawkeyes cannot rely too heavily on their post players to generate offense on the low block if they expect to emerge victorious. Despite their overall defensive prowess, both Cincinnati and Tennessee have proven vulnerable to teams with proficient outside shooting; the Bearcats allowed conference opponents to shoot 37% from three, while the Volunteers struggled to defend the three in both of their losses to Auburn, their near loss to lowly Vanderbilt in January, and their blowout loss to Kentucky in February. If Iowa’s three-point shooters can hit consistently from deep, it can help to mitigate their upcoming opponents’ biggest defensive strengths and could jumpstart an offense that has been consistently inconsistent over the latter half of Big Ten play.

While most of the Hawkeyes have been cold from deep of late, they still have a number of weapons capable of doing serious damage from beyond the arc. I argued one month ago that Iowa needs Jordan Bohannon to elevate his play in order to find success in the NCAA tournament, and that sentiment remains as true today as it did then. However, Wieskamp and Moss have both proven to be deadly (even if maddeningly inconsistent) three-point marksmen, and Nicholas Baer’s three-point barrage against Illinois last Thursday serves as an excellent reminder that the former Sixth Man of the Year can be lethal from deep. If a few of these players can manage to find their shooting stroke between now and Friday, Iowa should have a fighting chance against both of its first two opponents in the NCAA tournament.

The Iowa Hawkeyes remain an incredibly talented team in spite of their poor play of late, and certainly have the potential to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen. However, the Hawkeyes will have little-to-no chance at finding success in their return to the NCAA tournament if they are not able to emerge as a consistent offensive threat from beyond the three-point line. Iowa spent much of the season living by the three and if they aren’t careful, they may very well die by it.