The Iowa Hawkeyes (22-11, 10-10) will be taking on the Cincinnati Bearcats (28-6, 14-4) for the first time in 14 years this Friday. These teams have had very different paths since then, with the Bearcats moving to the Big East for eight years before settling into the American Athletic Conference after the insane conference realignment. Their NCAA tournament streak stretches across the change and Mick Cronin has been the constant.
Phil Neuffer, site manager of Down the Drive, joined us to answer some of our questions about this iteration of the Bearcats, what we might expect, and who would be the Ron Harper, Jr./Justin Ahrens-type who comes from relatively nowhere to burn Iowa from deep!
1) After a second straight AAC tournament championship, how does the sentiment around this team differ from last year’s senior-laden team entering the tournament? How did it compare with the preseason expectations of this bunch?
This will make for UC’s ninth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance so the Bearcats are in the fortunate position of expecting to go dancing every year.
With that written, this year’s team was thought to be one that would take a step back to a degree. You don’t lose guys like Gary Clark (2018 American Athletic Conference Player of the Year), Jacob Evans (first-team all-AAC) and Kyle Washington from a 31-win team that earned a No. 2 seed and get better. However, Jarron Cumberland had been a rising star for the last two years and having him helm a roster that still had plenty of depth and potential made expectations high once more, although a bit lower than the previous year.
That hasn’t changed all that much as we enter the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats have certainly had their stumbles, but they play such a distinct brand of basketball that they are always competitive, no matter who the opponent may be. After winning 28 games, the belief is that this team can still make a run.
2) Jarron Cumberland leads the team in points, assists, free throws - I’m legitimately blown away by some of the games he had from the charity stripe - but he’s had some pedestrian games as the focal point of the Bearcat offense. Have teams had actual success in containing him or is it just a function of his shots not falling? If he’s not filling it up, who can Hawkeye fans expect to fill in his stead?
There really isn’t a way to fully make Cumberland a non-factor. Even in games where he has had trouble consistently making shots, he still adds so much with his playmaking and rebounding while drawing attention away from other players on the floor. I think the teams that have been able to slow him down in terms of scoring have done so by making him the focus of their defensive strategy. Since the Bearcats don’t have a plethora of knockdown shooters, that can sometimes work, but Cumberland always finds a way to step up when it counts, even if that means taking tons of contact from aggressive defenders and getting to the line.
If Cumberland isn’t going to be the top scorer, the likely candidate to replace him is Keith Williams, who is averaging 10.1 points per game this season. However, don’t sleep on Justin Jenifer and Trevon Scott. Jenifer is an excellent three-point shooter who had a perfect 5-of-5 showing in the AAC tournament quarterfinals and Scott is averaging 13.6 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting over the last five contests.
2A) Is there a mediocre shooter who is poised to shoot like 5/6 from three?
Cane Broome. You might look at his full-season work and chuckle, but he is shooting 42.6 percent from three on 3.6 attempts per game since the beginning of February and hit at a 39 percent pace last season.
(Ed. note: you’ve been warned)
3) Mick Cronin’s hallmarks have been a slow tempo and very defensively-oriented teams. Is there any reason to believe Iowa might be able to turn this one into Fran McCaffery’s style of a high-paced shootout?
I think what Cronin’s teams are best at is asserting their will on the pace of a game. They consistently make their opponents play slow, raising the importance of each possession and every shot attempt. I think a perfect example of that is how the Bearcats dealt with Memphis this year. The Tigers are sixth in the country in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom, averaging 74 possessions per 40 minutes. When they played the Bearcats, they slowed to an average of 67 possessions per 40 minutes while failing to score 70 points in both meetings. I fully expect this game to be a close one but not because both teams are sprinting up and down the floor.
4) I hesitate to bring it up, but the main gripe amongst Iowa fans has been the cool 90 minute drive it takes to get from Cincinnati to Columbus. Will this turn into Fifth Third Arena Northeast and what kind of advantage do you expect from the location?
I think there will certainly be a strong contingent of Bearcat fans in attendance but I don’t think it will have as big an effect on this game as others might believe. However, if they can get it to resemble Fifth Third Arena to a noticeable degree, that will really help since the Bearcats have gone 50-3 at home over the last three seasons, including a 15-1 mark when they played home games at BB&T Arena in Highland Heights, Kentucky last year.
5) Lastly, who ya got?
These are two teams entering the tournament in very different circumstances. The Bearcats just rattled off three-straight wins to claim their league title while the Hawkeyes have lost five of their last six. Momentum isn’t everything but I think that could play a role in this one, especially if the Bearcats are able to frustrate Iowa’s attempts at pushing the issue on offense. Cincinnati 70 Iowa 67
So there you have it. Thanks to Phil for answering our questions. You can find him on twitter dot com at @philnueffer and Down the Drive at @downthedrive.