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Do Or Die: Iowa Basketball Takes On 2nd-Seeded Tennessee

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With a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line, can Iowa find a way to upset Rick Barnes’ excellent Volunteer squad?

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

Iowa sure picked the right time to get its swagger back! After muddling through a month of mediocre play, the Hawkeyes rediscovered their form in an opening round victory against the 7th seeded Cincinnati Bearcats. Down 13 points midway through the first half and experiencing an abysmally poor shooting performance from Tyler Cook, Iowa relied on exceptional three-point shooting, an effective press, and arguably the best game of Luka Garza’s Hawkeye career to mount a comeback and keep its season alive.

Iowa’s next challenge comes against #2 seeded Tennessee, the team that eliminated Iowa from the NCAA tournament in 2014. Iowa has struggled against #2 seeds in the tournament of late, losing handily to both Gonzaga and Villanova in this very round in its previous two tournament appearances. Still, Iowa’s win over Cincinnati showed the combination of polish and tenacity that Hawkeye fans have caught fleeting glimpses of this season in wins over teams like Michigan, Iowa State, and Oregon. Tennessee is one of the best teams in the country, but if Iowa brings the intensity it showed in the second half against Cincinnati, the Volunteers could very well be on upset alert.

Here are a few key factors to watch for going into Sunday’s game:

1. Can Iowa stop Tennessee from scoring in the paint?

One of Iowa’s most effective second half adjustments came when it deployed its press against Cincinnati. The Bearcats strengths were their defense and inside scoring and they usually preferred to play at a snail’s pace in order to maximize their fortes. When Iowa deployed its press in the second half, the Hawkeyes forced Cincinnati to speed up their tempo to counter Iowa’s full-court trap attempts and baited the Bearcats into taking a number of quick jump shots that, while open, were well outside their team’s comfort zone and which came very early in the shot clock. This strategy proved very effective, as the Bearcats abandoned their inside game and proceeded to shoot 6-27 from beyond the arc.

However, when Cincinnati did manage to get the ball inside, Iowa’s defense proved largely incapable of stopping them. Cincinnati shot nearly 58% from two, and Iowa’s big men struggled to defend in space and prevent the Bearcats from scoring at the rim. Iowa’s interior defense has been its Achilles heel all season long; no Big Ten team allowed opponents to shoot better from two during conference play, and opposing teams scored on 53.6% of two-point field goal attempts against Iowa on the year (Iowa ranks 319th in the country in this metric). Luka Garza, for all his offensive prowess, has struggled mightily at low-post defense this season, and Iowa’s perimeter players are vulnerable against quick guards who can beat them off the dribble while driving to the lane.

Tennessee’s offense is tailor-made to exploit Iowa’s defensive weaknesses. Tennessee is more committed to attacking the rim than nearly any team in the country having attempted a whopping 1433 two-point field goals over the course of the season, the 6th most in college basketball. The Volunteers made an SEC-leading 56% of their two-point shots on the season and were paced by the exceptional low-post offense of junior forward Grant Williams, a stout 6-7, 235-pound force with nimble feet and an array of post moves that make him exceptionally difficult to defend.

Containing Williams will be a real challenge for Iowa’s post defenders, but arguably the biggest threat to the Hawkeye defense will come from Tennessee’s perimeter players. Junior point guard Jordan Bone is one of the quickest guards in college basketball and has proven capable of beating nearly any defender off the dribble. Furthermore, Tennessee’s 6-6, 240-pound small forward Admiral Schofield will be a matchup nightmare for Iowa’s lithe perimeter players and will likely try to use his physicality and quickness to bully his way to the rim. Iowa’s best bet against the Volunteers may be to employ a heavy dose of zone defense, but unlike the Bearcats, Tennessee is a proficient three-point shooting team at 36% on the year and can exploit Iowa’s frequent struggles at rotating on the perimeter in zone if the Hawkeyes sell-out on interior defense in an attempt to slow the Vol’s post attack.

Iowa has largely won in spite of its defense this season, but the Hawkeyes will need to make plays on this end if they want to have a shot at pulling a second consecutive upset tomorrow. The Volunteers average over 80 points per game and have the 5th most efficient offense in college basketball due in large part to their willingness to get the ball into the paint. If Williams, Bone, and Schofield are able to score at the rim at will, Iowa could be in for a long day.

2. Can Iowa improve its performance on the glass?

One of the biggest factors contributing to Iowa’s first half struggles against Cincinnati was its utter inability to box out. The Bearcats tallied nine offensive rebounds in the first half alone, which they managed to convert into 11 points. While the Hawkeyes ultimately out-rebounded the Bearcats 33-32 on the game, this number is misleading since the Hawkeyes’ hot shooting denied Cincinnati an opportunity to wrack up meaningful rebound totals on the defensive end. Although Iowa’s rebounding did improve significantly during the second half, the Hawkeyes still surrendered 12 offensive boards and struggled to keep Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks from cleaning the glass for most of the game.

If Iowa’s poor glasswork continues, Williams, Schofield, and 6-11 center Kyle Alexander make a potent rebounding corps that is more than capable of exploiting the Hawkeyes’ deficiencies on the glass. Tennessee recorded the 24th-most boards in college basketball this season, and both Williams and Alexander haven proven themselves to be excellent offensive rebounders. Iowa can ill afford to give a team as good as the Volunteers many second chance looks, and the Hawkeyes have benefited greatly from well-timed offensive rebounds from players like Nicholas Baer and Joe Wieskamp at various points this season. Continuing to pull down offensive rebounds while limiting the number their opponent can corral will be extremely important if Iowa hopes to punch a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

3. Can Tyler Cook play up to his NBA potential?

Iowa shot a fantastic 50% from three against Cincinnati, and as I argued prior to the tournament, they will need to continue to make shots from deep if they hope to beat Tennessee. However, the Hawkeyes cannot reasonably expect to shoot this well from three in every game, and as excellent as Luka Garza was against Cincinnati, Iowa will need offense to come from more sources if they hope to keep up with the fast-paced and efficient Volunteer attack. Tennessee boasts the SEC’s top interior defense and ranks 4th in the country in blocks with 189 on the year, and unless Garza can continue to stretch the defense with his hot shooting from three-point range, he may have trouble replicating Friday’s offensive performance when matched up against an excellent post defender like Kyle Alexander.

Enter Tyler Cook, Iowa’s dormant low-post weapon. While Cook has shown himself to be capable of scoring 20+ points in any given game, he has struggled to score with efficiency of late, as evidenced by his 1-9 shooting performance against Cincinnati. Cook has shot only 36% from the field in March, has scored below his season average of 14 points-per-game in four of his past five contests, and was even held scoreless against Wisconsin a few weeks ago. While Cook has a done a good job cutting down his turnovers of late and had an excellent game passing the ball against Cincinnati even as he struggled with his shot, it has been far too long since he took over a game the way he is capable of.

Tyler Cook’s NBA aspirations are no secret, and with his excellent athleticism and wide array of post moves, this goal has seemed very reachable at times. But Cook has played extremely rushed and out of control on offense during the past month, frequently bull-rushing the rim in situations in which he would be better served deploying other moves from his extensive low-post repertoire. Whether it has been the pressure of living up to his NBA expectations or a desire to single-handedly correct his team’s late-season skid, it has been a long time since Iowa fans have seen the Tyler Cook they’ve grown accustomed to watching over the past three years.

If ever there was a time for Cook to rediscover his form, this is it. Cook has the athleticism to match-up against Tennessee’s big men on defense and the speed and explosiveness to go at Grant Williams when he has the ball on the low post. Iowa doesn’t need Tyler Cook to be its sole source of offense to beat Tennessee, and in fact the Hawkeyes tend to score more when Cook plays within the flow of the offense as opposed to dominating the ball. But if Iowa can get a vintage performance from Tyler Cook while also continuing to hit shots consistently from the outside, Tennessee’s defense could be in real trouble.

Tennessee is a tough matchup for Iowa, but the Hawkeyes will need to find a way to overcome the Volunteers if their season is to continue. Here’s hoping this is not the last men’s basketball preview article I write between now and next fall.