The Iowa Hawkeyes (22-11, 10-10) have returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a minute but the narrative around them is largely focused on the downward trend to finish the season. That can all flip in the span of 80 game minutes and just one weekend. To do that, they’ll have to beat a Cincinnati Bearcats squad (28-6, 14-4) riding the high of a conference tournament championship 90 minutes away from their campus with the game in Columbus, OH.
Crazier things have happened, and after all: This is March.
Cincinnati’s offense is likely to begin and end with Jarron Cumberland. As mentioned in yesterday’s Q&A with our SB Nation brethren, he leads the Bearcats in points, assists, free throws made and shot. In many ways, he reminds me of a better shooting Nebraska’s James Palmer, Jr. which is good or bad, depending on the guy who shows up. Like Palmer, he has his faults as the hegemon of his team’s offense since the nature of such a reliance means there will probably be some really inefficient games. Look no further than his performance at Iowa where he had 20 points (good!) on 6/15 shooting (bad!). However, he’s absolutely the type of guy teams want with the ball in their hands down the stretch. Palmer carved Iowa up during Nebraska’s comeback win a couple weeks ago.
In Cincinnati’s most recent losses - just before their conference tournament to Houston and UCF - Cumberland averaged 15 points on 31% shooting. That’s the type of number Iowa should aspire to. Of course, there are other areas the Hawks will have to focus on since the Bearcats eked out a tourney win against Wichita St. in a game he shot 3/16. But Cumberland is going to be the main focus.
Speaking of some of the other guys: each of Keith Williams, Tre Scott, Cane Broome, Justin Jenifer, and Nysier Brooks average 8.0 points or more. Broome and Scott each have 20 point games this season while Jenifer shoots nearly 45% from deep on 128 attempts. Brooks and Scott both have tallied 5 or more offensive rebounds in games this year.
The seven guys mentioned so far are going to see the bulk of the minutes as Mick Cronin plays his bench just 30.6% of available minutes which is pretty middle of the pack. However, Behind starters Scott (6’8”) and Brooks (6’11”), there is limited depth in Cincinnati’s frontcourt with just Eliel Nsoseme and Mamoudou Diarra receiving minutes at 6’9”. Because of that, the Bearcats will regularly go small with Rashawn Fredericks or Williams at the 4.
For Iowa to notch a win in a third straight NCAA tournament appearance (people forget!), here’s what they’ll have to do.
Box the hell out
Despite Cincinnati’s relative lack of size, they are pirhannas on the offensive glass. They rebound 37.6% of their misses and there are quite a bit of them with a field goal percentage of 43.2%. Despite playing such a slow tempo, their 431 offensive rebounds (12.7 per game!) ranks 11th in the country and Brooks and Scott amount for 5 of them a game.
The Hawkeyes are going to have to be incredibly conscientious of where their assignment is when a shot goes up and Luka Garza, particularly, has been a season-long culprit in that area all season. By KenPom’s calculation ($), he rebounds just 12.9% of opponent misses which is lower than every other post player Iowa has. The raw numbers have it as a decrease of nearly 1.5 defensive boards per game despite an uptick in minutes. The Hawkeyes, as a whole, have seen their defensive rebounds/game decrease by about one per game.
If Iowa hopes to win, they’d best end possessions when afforded the opportunity. Since it figures to be a slower paced game, granting the Bearcats another possession after already defending could spell doom.
Play sound defense
Fran already coaches a style which puts a premium on not fouling. Against a guy like Cumberland, who draws 6.0 fouls/40 minutes, that’ll be even more important. Not only does fouling him grant Cincinnati instant offense but it allows them to set their defense and impose their preferred tempo: S-L-O-W.
Not only does solid defense mean less fouling, but if Iowa is able to stay connected like they have in some of their better defensive games they’ll force the Bearcats to take one of their less preferred shots, whether it be a non-Cumberland/Jenifer three or a low-percentage two. The zone is going to be vital in this aspect, since it may stall Cincy’s offense and force ugly end-of-shot-clock situations.
I’m absolutely prepared for the worst, as it pertains to the Cincinnati-in-Columbus situation. By my estimation, Iowa’s best road win was at Indiana, though all four of their conference road wins required some sort of heroics: Luka Garza wearing down Dererk Pardon at Northwestern and Mike Watkins at Penn State; Jordan Bohannon’s explosive second half at IU; Joe Wieskamp’s buzzer-beating three at Rutgers. Iowa has the guys to work through the lulls which should be expected in a tournament environment.
The key, of course, is not let one bad possession turn into three or consistently allow poor offense to restrict their defensive effort or let frustrating (non-)calls carry over into worse play. There’s a reason Iowa is back in the tournament and they’ve played good basketball this season. If they’re able to rekindle the magic, be crisp in their offense, and yes, make shots, their season is unlikely to end just yet.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic but this team has shown they’re capable to make a run. It all starts tomorrow.