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Hawkeyes face Oregon with Sweet 16 on the line

The biggest game of Fran McCaffery’s tenure is upon us

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Grand Canyon at Iowa Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Though it’s unfair to allow single games to serve as indictments on tenures, programs, or conferences, there does come a time where a single game can counter prevailing narratives. For the 2-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes (22-8), their game against 7-seed Oregon (20-6) is as important as it’s been for all of the 21st century.

Sure, Iowa has played for entry into the Sweet 16 just four times in the prior 21 seasons. Not since It’s been since 1993 for them to enter a second game as seed line favorites, as they are today. Expectations are fair to be high.

They’ll have a tricky opponent in the Ducks, though, coached by Dana Altman. During his 11 year tenure in Eugene, he’s in his seventh NCAA tournament and has been to four Sweet 16s. He aligns Rubik’s cubes. They finished atop the regular season standings for the Pac-12, a conference who has yet to have lost an NCAA tournament game as of this writing, at 14-4. KenPom rates their offense 14th & defense 65th, with a lower tempo. In conference play, they rank at 1st and 6th which is in line with Iowa’s 1st/7th vs. Big Ten competition.

Maybe they’re underseeded like plenty of other teams who have advanced so far in this tournament. This is a “no shade” space, at the moment. And yeah, they moved forward on Saturday by way of the tournament’s only “no contest.” Also no shade. But they’re also the only team remaining with a < 1-game winning streak, which feels like something which is in Iowa’s favor.

Three guys

Chris Duarte (G, 6’6”, 190 lbs): Duarte leads the Ducks in scoring at 16.7 points/game and does it with impressive efficiency. He scores at high rates inside (62%) and outside (43%) the arc. Though he is not UO’s primary ball handler, he averages a couple assists per game, as well.

In all likelihood, he’ll match up with Joe Wieskamp when Oregon goes man-to-man. On defense, he’s incredibly tough with 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks/game despite fouling just 1.4 times a game.

Eugene Omuruyi (F, 6’6”, 235 lbs): More or less Oregon’s center, he shares the scoring lead with Duarte at 16.7 and is a threat from deep, at 38%. Though he doesn’t lead the team in rebounding, he’s a force on the offensive glass with 2.1 a game. The Rutgers transfer faced Iowa twice in 2019 and accumulated seven fouls in 55 minutes but, more notably, had 5 assists in their 14-point win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. His blend of size and speed may pose its own set of problems for the Hawks, defensively.

Though he serves as the Ducks’ last line of defense, it is very likely Oregon is forced to double down low and recover around the perimeter.

Will Richardson (G, 6’5”, 180 lbs): After missing the first 12 games, Richardson returned into the starting lineup to become their stalwart point guard. His 3.6 assists lead the team and he can fill it up, as well. The lefty shoots 39% on the year from deep and went off against Oregon State two weeks ago for in a 6/7 outburst.

Three questions

Is there any advantage gained by the Ducks “no contest?” A lazy question but one sure to be asked. Three times this season, Oregon has gone 10 or more days without playing a game. The results: win vs. California, loss vs. Oregon State, and loss vs. Washington State. So that is a set a data. In the latter two games, the Ducks shot a collective 13/46 from deep.

There are plenty of intangible issues Iowa may deal with - is Oregon more prepared than Iowa by way of pre-scouting, or well rested by way of not playing? Whatever advantages may exist there - the rest is only a thing because they were slotted to have the last game of Saturday night which could have meant an even shorter turnaround than Iowa is experiencing - could be offset by being as rusty as any team remaining in the tournament. Everyone left is on at least a 1-game winning streak and played within the last two days. That feels like advantage Iowa.

Can Iowa keep up the pressure offensively? Their 1.358 points/possession performance against Grand Canyon was their best since their January 17th win at Northwestern. With effective shooting inside & out, limited turnovers, and an assembly line to the charity stripe, Fran McCaffery could not have written up a more preferred outcome to Iowa’s offense. In fact, Iowa’s PPP performance was the best of any offense in Iowa’s 7 NCAA tournament games since 2014. A short list, to be fair, but that includes the genuinely insane outburst against Davidson and drubbings from Villanova & Gonzaga.

Iowa is very likely not to replicate Saturday’s performance. That much we know. Yet they can still assert themselves offensively with deliberate inside-out offense after Luka Garza was forced outside against the stout interior of Grand Canyon. It would be fantastic if Jordan Bohannon & Wieskamp’s performances carry over but CJ Fredrick has been a bit of a forgotten man on this squad. He’s scored double digits just twice in 2021 and could be a shot in the arm if Oregon stifles Bo & Wiesy.

What defense do we see? On the other end of the floor, we saw a little bit of regression from Iowa, at 1.169 PPP. Just Michigan scored at a higher rate since Iowa’s flipped the switch a month and a half ago. Yet it is fair to wonder if the zone defense Iowa often displayed was a way to manage the rotation ahead of today’s game, as the Hawks wire-to-wired GCU and it never dipped below double-digits.

Now, if the Hawkeyes play defense like that today, they will lose. Yet there’s enough of a sample size to expect them to bring it on that end of the court. Doing so will go a long way to punching their ticket to the next round.

Iowa has long had their sights set on these games and knocked the first one out with relative ease. Though their opponent has not played in over a week, the Hawks were able to get into a groove offensively and settle in defensively. That’s what Grand Canyon required and may be much different than Oregon. 40 long minutes will define whether Iowa is up to the task of adjusting what each opponent needs and will ultimately define the success of this team.