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Iowa’s Path to the Final Four

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After months of waiting, Iowa finally has a chance to go on the type of NCAA Tournament run fans have clamored for since 1980.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Wisconsin vs Iowa Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Since the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament, Hawkeye basketball fans have been fixated on the idea of their team returning to the Final Four for the first time since 1980 and winning the first national championship in program history. After a successful season, Iowa has now earned a #2 seed in the tournament, its highest seeding since the program made the Elite Eight in 1987. While Iowa’s path to the Final Four is finally laid out for them, the Hawkeyes will have to sidestep several dangerous pitfalls in the early rounds and prevail in likely showdowns against two of the sport’s elite programs if they hope to find themselves playing in April with a chance to cut down the nets.

Iowa’s first matchup in the tournament will come this Saturday against Grand Canyon, the winners of the WAC’s regular season and conference tournaments who finished with a 17-6 record after starting the season 4-3. The Antelopes are in their first NCAA Tournament in program history but are led by a veteran of postseason play in head coach Bryce Drew (the brother of Baylor coach Scott Drew and son of hall of fame coach Homer Drew) who has taken both Vanderbilt and Valparaiso to the NCAA Tournament.

The Antelopes present an interesting matchup for the Hawkeyes. Grand Canyon is led by its senior twin towers of Asbjorn Midtgaard (7’0”) and Alessandro Lever (6’10”) who combine for over 27 points per game. While Lever is a capable pick-and-pop player who shoots nearly 40% from three, the 270 pound Midtgaard lives in the post where he shoots an absurd 70.62% from the field, the highest field goal percentage in college basketball. The Antelopes are fairly poor shooters from outside the paint (the team makes fewer than a third of its three pointers and shoots only 68.6% from the line), which should incentivize Grand Canyon to attack in the post in hopes of generating easy baskets and potentially putting Garza in foul trouble. Given Iowa’s propensity for playing small at the four position, it will be interesting to see whether Fran McCaffery is quick to turn to Keegan Murray at power forward to help Iowa match up against the Antelopes’ sizeable frontcourt.

Grand Canyon’s true strength lies in its defense. The Antelopes allow only 61.9 points per game, the ninth fewest in college basketball. Midtgaard is an imposing paint protector who can wall up against fellow bigs and contest the shots of driving guards, and the Antelopes’ defensive rebounding prowess (their 29.6 boards per game are the eight most in the sport) prevents opponents from getting many second shot opportunities.

Sophomore point guard Jovan Blacksher is a player to watch in this matchup. While Grand Canyon tends to play at a deliberate pace on offense and ranks among the teams with the slowest adjusted tempos according to KenPom, Blacksher is exceptionally quick at only 5’11” and 155 lbs. and is capable of pushing the pace in transition and frustrating Iowa’s guards off the dribble. If the Antelopes hope to play predator instead of prey in their matchup against the Hawkeyes, they will need their diminutive point guard to play well above his size.

Awaiting Iowa after Grand Canyon will be the winner of the 7/10 matchup between Oregon and VCU. The 7th-seeded Ducks last were upset by the Hawkeyes in Madison Square Garden two seasons ago on the strength of Jordan Bohannon’s 16 point, 8 assist performance, but are more than talented enough to give Iowa trouble in this matchup.

Oregon boasts a dangerous offense featuring sure-shooting senior Chris Duarte, a player whose 63% effective field goal percentage led the Pac-12 this season.

Dana Altman’s Ducks squad is particularly dangerous when shooting from the outside, where they made a fantastic 39.4% of their threes in Pac-12 play. Oregon is VERY long in its backcourt and boasts several guards who stand 6’5” or 6’6” and can elevate over their opponents to score while also using their length to disrupt passing lanes, helping the Ducks average 7.5 steals per game on the season.

Where Oregon sacrifices height, however, is its frontcourt, where the Ducks’ have no starters who stand above 6’6”. It’s unclear who if anyone on Oregon’s roster would be able to effectively guard Luka Garza in the paint, but Garza may also struggle to cover undersized forwards like Eric Williams or Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi, both of whom would likely attack Iowa’s center off the dribble from the perimeter. The team that can best navigate these mismatches would likely have the advantage in this game.

If Oregon falls to VCU in the round of 64, the Hawkeyes will play a team ranked 12th in nation in adjusted defense according to KenPom. Sophomore Hason Ward is a fantastic interior defender who averages 2.4 blocks per game, while the Rams have several guards who can pester opposing ballhandlers and generate turnovers, helping them secure the sixth most steals in the nation on a per-game basis with 9.4. VCU also excelled at taking away the three ball and held their opponents to only 30.1% shooting from beyond the arc this season.

Fortunately, VCU’s offense is far less potent than its defense. A-10 Player of the Year Nah’Shon Hyland is an elite scorer who is dangerous both off the dribble and off the catch.

However, VCU committed a conference-high 14.8 turnovers per game this season, shot only 32.9% from three on the season, and ranks only 117th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. VCU struggled to score in matchups against high-level competition this season such as West Virginia, St. Bonaventure, and Penn State, and given Iowa’s defensive improvement in recent weeks, there is reason to believe the Hawkeyes could slow down Hyland enough to put the Rams out to pasture.

Iowa’s most likely Sweet 16 matchup is against the #3 seed Kansas Jayhawks, a team that finished 20-8 on the year and was forced to withdraw from its conference tournament due to an outbreak of the coronavirus. Star forward David McCormack and rotation guard Tristan Enaruna both missed the Big 12 Tournament after testing positive for the virus, and neither player plans to travel with the team to Indianapolis (though both could join them later if medically cleared).

If McCormack is back in action by the Sweet 16, the 6’10” junior will present a fascinating matchup with Garza on the low block, where his vast improvement on the defensive end has helped the Jayhawks earn the sixth best adjusted defensive efficiency rating according to KenPom. Point guard Marcus Garrett is a fantastic defender in his own right and would be a major thorn in Jordan Bohannon’s side on the perimeter. Garrett regularly locked down opposing triggermen throughout the Big 12 season and helped hold league opponents to lower point totals and shoot percentages than any other team in the conference. Iowa has faced several great defenses this season, but KU’s guards can make things as difficult for Iowa’s shooters as any team it has encountered. When Kansas has the ball, 6’5” junior Ochai Agbaji presents a multi-level scoring threat that would be a challenge for Iowa’s guards to contain.

However, KU may well fall to their likely round of 32 opponent, the 6th seeded USC Trojans. An Iowa/USC matchup would pit the nation’s strongest offensive big man in Luka Garza against the premiere low-post defender in Pac-12 Player of the Year Evan Mobley, whose three blocks per game led the conference and ranked sixth in college basketball.

Mobley’s USC squad is the West Coast incarnate of head coach Andy Enfield’s old “dunk city” squad from Florida Gulf Coast, and has produced more dunks on the season than almost any team in the country. USC’s combination of length (all but one Trojan starter stands 6’7” or taller with two of them measuring in at 6’10”+) and athleticism makes them an elite rebounding team while enabling them to frustrate their opponents on defense. Yet while USC’s rim-rattling style of play results in nearly 22 free throw attempts per game, the Trojans have been held back on the season by their inability to convert from the line, where they have shot an abysmal 64.7% as a team this year.

If March Madness lives up to its name, the Hawkeyes could face one of three other opponents in the Sweet 16: #14 seed Eastern Washington or #11 seeds Drake or Wichita State. A Sweet 16 matchup between the Hawkeyes and their in-state rivals the Bulldogs would make for compelling drama for anyone who lives in the state of Iowa, though Drake may struggle to make a run in the tournament with starting point guard Roman Penn scheduled to miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury.

In reality, Iowa’s greatest test in its quest to reach the Final Four will come in the form of another group of Bulldogs. Iowa lost to #1 Gonzaga 99-88 on December 19th, and the Zags have smashed every opponent in front of them since that point, finishing the year 26-0 with a chance to become only the second school in history to complete an undefeated national championship season in the NCAA Tournament era. Oklahoma or Missouri will both have a difficult time matching up against the powerful Gonzaga machine in the round of 32, #5 seed Creighton enters the tournament reeling from its 73-48 embarrassment against Georgetown, and while Virginia’s famed pack line defense can give opponents fits, Gonzaga already crushed the Hoos 98-75 this season, to say nothing of Virginia being in coronavirus lockdown after withdrawing from the ACC Tournament and not even planning to travel to Indianapolis until a day before its first game. If any team can stop Gonzaga from reaching the Final Four, it may have to be Iowa.

Iowa’s loss to Gonzaga exposed several issues with Iowa’s defense, many of which have been addressed over the course of the season. However, it remains unclear whether the Hawkeyes will truly be able to contain Gonzaga’s extremely potent scoring attack, which is the only offense in the country more dangerous than Iowa’s according to KenPom. Aside from Iowa’s defensive struggles, the Hawkeyes were also held back in their first matchup by an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance from deep, where the Hawkeyes managed to make only 4-22 shots on the day. Some of these shooting struggles can be attributed to Gonzaga’s length and athleticism, but Hawkeyes must still expect that they would shoot closer to their Big Ten average of 40.5% from range should the two teams meet again. If the Hawkeyes can improve their perimeter play, lock down on defensive, and coax another performance out of Garza similar to his 30 point, 10 rebound, 3 block game during the teams’ first meeting, the Hawkeyes could have a real shot to advance.

While their path will not be easy, the 2020-21 Hawkeyes have the best chance of any Iowa team in over thirty years to make the Final Four. A win against Grand Canyon on Saturday will put Iowa one step closer to a potential rematch with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight and to achieving its goal of returning to college basketball’s biggest stage. The Hawkeyes are four victories away from the Final Four and six away from being crowned the best team in the country. It’s time for Iowa to cut down the nets and raise a new banner.