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Hawkeyes face Grand Canyon in battle of the bigs

Luka Garza looks to get the Hawks off to a hot start in the NCAA Tournament

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

The 2-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes (21-8) will take on 15-seeded Grand Canyon (17-6) tomorrow evening in their first round matchup. Iowa was selected as an at-large after finishing in third place of the Big Ten while Grand Canyon was the WAC’s regular season & tournament winner.

The Antelopes are led by Bryce Drew, the guy you see sinking a shot against Ole Miss this time every year. He’s had an interesting coaching resume, starting at his alma mater - Valparaiso - and picking up where his father, Homer Drew, left off. He amassed four regular season titles in the Horizon league and two NCAA tournament berths before leaving to Vanderbilt where he went 10-8 in his first conference season and 0-18 in his final conference season aka a full Prohm.

He’s in his first season at GCU and has certainly made the most of it with the aforementioned championships. They’re among the best in defensive effective field goal percentage and do a great job locking down the boards, which play into a more methodical pace.

Their schedule played out with three losses in their non-conference season to Arizona State, San Francisco, & Colorado. Each one of those losses were amongst the five most prolific opponent performances from three. In their three non-conference losses, they were held to their three least efficient offensive performances of the season. So there’s the template: hit the three or defend. Preferably, both!

Three guys

Alessandro Lever (F, 6’10”, 235 lbs): Asbjorn Midtgaard would probably already occupy this space if I did not already detail the Lopes’ unique size earlier this week. Lever is the more unique player, in my view, as GCU’s best three point shooter and mismatch by way of size and scoring ability. Since he will normally occupy their 4 spot (except when he is their 5 with Midtgaard out) it will be incumbent on either Connor McCaffery or Joe Wieskamp to be the guy sticking with him, though neither can necessarily contest his shot with length. I suspect we see a heavy dose of Keegan Murray with Patrick McCaffery having some opportunity to stifle the Italian.

Jovan Blacksher (G, 5’11”, 155 lbs): The proverbial straw who stirs the drink leads Grand Canyon in minutes & assists while coming third in points. He’s also the tip of their spear, defensively, with 1.6 steals/game. It’s worth reiterating just how stifling GCU’s defense has been, holding opponents to 61 points/game, on average. That’s in large part due to what Blacksher can accomplish without fouling (just 2.3 fouls/40 minutes).

Gabe McGlothan (F, 6’7”, 220 lbs): The do-it-all sixth man will come in and serve as the power forward when either Lever or Midtgaard are out and provides instant energy. He’ll attack the glass, posting a team high offensive rebounding rate, and can provide deftness around the rim by shooting 63% from two.

Three questions

Who wins the foul battle? I know much of the talk around the Big Ten has been about finally seeing some different refs but that cuts both ways. Perhaps Luka Garza is getting away with more than we realize? Irrespective of that answer, Garza does typically have stretches where he an opposing centers can go toe-to-toe with baskets and the Lopes will test Garza here.

With Midtgaard’s exceptional shooting percentage, it’s assured he is likely to get his (to some extent) but will he also take a pound of flesh by way of drawing Garza into foul trouble? The same could be said about Garza on GCU, but they at least have one if the other gets in a bit of trouble with the foul trouble. With no Jack Nunge, it’s fair to wonder how Keegan Murray might match up if he has to play extended minutes at the five. Would Fran consider deploying Josh Ogundele in the Hawks’ most important game of the season?

Can the Hawks bounce back defensively? Since Iowa gave up 89 points to Ohio State (1.27 points/possession), they have not allowed a second opponent to exceed 1 PPP in a row. That’s meant following Rutgers (1.013), Michigan (1.178), and Wisconsin (1.129) with exceptional defensive performances.

In Iowa’s final Big Ten game, they allowed 1.085 PPP to Illinois, as the Illini finished in the lane with ease, at 57%. Iowa will need to reset along the perimeter with driving lanes and provide help, when called for, on post ups. GCU is susceptible to turning it over with a rate of 20.4% (13.1/game) and seven players having rates of 18% or more. Considering GCU’s inability to knock down shots from deep (32%), it may make sense to be more aggressive in passing lanes not just to get stops, but easy looks at the other end.

What shooting do we get? After shooting over 40% from deep in 11 of Iowa’s first 18 conference games, they failed to exceed it once in the last four. It’s the longest stretch of the season to have such deficient shooting so tomorrow would be a great time to flip the script.

While knowing sometimes the answer is simply luck breaking against Iowa, it’s fair to say their best three point shooters have not been as hot as we’ve come to expect. Since a 4/7 night against Penn State, CJ Fredrick has shot just 12 threes in the last six games, making five. Still a very good percentage! Just not enough volume.

Joe Wieskamp, though, is a little different story. He was on absolute fire up until his ankle injury against Wisconsin (2/2 that night), but has gone 3/11 in the two games since. Again, not exactly a Death Valley-level drought, but not what we’ve come to expect from the guy making nearly 50% of his threes this season.

If both guys have their water find their level on the season, we can see this offense do incredible things as they did for most of the season - but especially against non-conference opponents.

It’s March. It’s Madness. Iowa has expectations in a way unseen in my lifetime. It’s both thrilling and anxiety-inducing.

Let’s get MAD!