Iowa’s thrilling run to a Big Ten Tournament title was a remarkable achievement and a well-earned prize for veteran Hawkeyes like Jordan Bohannon and Connor McCaffery who have fallen short of their goal to claim conference championships in years past. Yet the Hawkeyes cannot afford to rest on their laurels; as significant a victory as the Big Ten Tournament was, the real prize remains at large. Iowa enters the NCAA Tournament as a #5 seed and one of the hottest teams in the country after winning four games in as many days with an average margin of victory of 14.5 points. With the Hawkeye offense steamrolling everything in sight and its defense playing better than it has in recent years (the team is surrendering just a shade under 70 points per game in its last 10 contests), Iowa enters March Madness as one of the hottest s in the country and appears capable of doing what no Hawkeye team has done since last earning a #5 seed in 1999: reach the Sweet Sixteen.
For Iowa to accomplish this goal, it must first contend with the Richmond Spiders, a surprising qualifier to the field of 64 who earned four of its 23 wins by running the table in the A-10 conference tournament. At first glance, the Spiders look more like daddy longlegs than tarantulas when compared to the red-hot Hawkeyes. Richmond is ranked as only the 83rd best team in the country according to KenPom and lost to two common opponents with Iowa on neutral courts (Maryland and Utah State, both of whom the Hawkeyes defeated).
Perhaps that’s why DraftKings Sportsbook set the opening line at Iowa -9 - the highest of any 5/12 matchup in the tournament. That line has climbed to Iowa -10.5 as of Tuesday evening with an over/under set at 151.5, which would seem to indicate not only does Vegas think the Hawkeyes are a difficult matchup for the Spiders, but so does the betting public.
However, Richmond proved more dangerous than expected in their run to the A-10 Tournament title, playing a suffocating brand of defense which held their opponents to only 62.25 points per game over the course of the event. The Spiders are also a veteran team with six seniors in their rotation, and they have shown a knack for playing close games even in defeat, allowing only four double-digit losses all season. Leading scorer Tyler Burton (16.3 points per game) is a dangerous offensive weapon both at the rim and beyond the arc (37.7% from three) who put in excellent performances against power conference teams in Mississippi State and NC State this year. For Iowa to win its fifth-straight opening round game in the NCAA Tournament, the Hawkeyes will have to avoid making the same mistake that led good teams like Davidson, Dayton, and VCU to get caught in the Spiders’ web last week: underestimating their opponent.
Here are three key factors to watch for in Thursday’s game:
1. Can Iowa dominate the rebound battle?
As Hawkeye fans have been constantly reminded during television broadcasts this season, Iowa is undefeated in 2021-22 when it wins the rebounding battle. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes seem almost certain to accomplish this feat against Richmond. The Spiders are one of the worst rebounding teams in college basketball, pulling down only 32.3 rebounds per game (the 307th best in the sport) and a woeful 7.5 offensive boards per game (the 323rd best). Richmond has decent size for a mid-major team, featuring three players in its starting lineup who stand 6’7” or taller, including a 6-10 center in Grant Golden. Yet the Spiders have are inefficient at attacking the glass; Iowa has two players (Keegan Murray and Filip Rebraca) with better total rebounding percentages (15.0 and 14.3, respectively), than Richmond’s leading rebounder Tyler Burton (13.9), with Kris Murray nipping at his heels with a rate of 13.5.
However, it will be on the offensive glass where Iowa must really exercise its advantage. One of the reasons for Richmond’s poor offensive rebounding numbers is the team’s commitment to falling back on defense instead of crashing the offensive glass, something which helps prevent opponents from scoring buckets in transition after missed shots. Iowa, meanwhile, thrives in the transition game and has consistently used it to generate easy offense buckets and make up for the occasional lulls in the Hawkeyes’ halfcourt attack. If Richmond succeeds in slowing Iowa’s transition attack, the Hawkeyes’ ability to create and capitalize on second-chance opportunities through could provide an important insurance policy should its offensive sets stall out.
2. Can either team create an advantage by generating takeaways?
Iowa and Richmond both excel in two of the same areas: creating turnovers and preventing their opponents from doing the same. Richmond is averaging 7.9 steals per game with Iowa close behind them at 7.4, while both teams rank in the top ten in the country in fewest turnovers allowed per game (9.2 for Iowa and 9.8 for Richmond).
Which squad will manage to play most like themselves against an opponent that can match them skill for skill in these areas? Richmond’s most disruptive defender is its itsy bitsy spider of a point guard Jacob Gilyard, a 5’9” cross between Jordan Bohannon and Joe Toussaint who averages 3.1 steals per game, leads the country with 108 takeaways on the season, and has made the A-10 All-Defense Team a record-setting four times over the course of his career. Iowa’s guards cannot afford to be loose with the ball, and players like Joe Toussaint and Ahron Ulis who have occasionally been turnover prone (Toussaint has a turnover % of 23.8, Ulis of 20.7) could face a quick hook if they struggle to play under control against the Spiders. While Iowa likely doesn’t need to turn Richmond over to advance to the round of 32, the Spiders’ best change for an upset comes if they are able to play disruptive defense and create easy breakaway opportunities on the other end. If Iowa struggles with ball security in this game, don’t be surprised to see Richmond keep things competitive long enough to make Hawkeye fans nervous.
3. Does Richmond have an answer for Keegan Murray on defense?
These days, it’s honestly fair to ask whether ANY team in college basketball has an answer to the sport’s most dynamic offensive force. Murray, who has not been held under 15 points in a single game since January 27, leads the nation in field goals made, player efficiency rating, offensive win shares, and offensive box score plus/minus. He is highly efficient at the rim, has a dangerous midrange floater, can beat defenders off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations, and has become a deadly weapon from beyond the arc where he is shooting 40.5% on the year.
As excellent as Richmond was on defense during the Atlantic 10 Tournament, their advanced metrics do not cast them as world-beaters, as they rank as only the 104th best team according to KenPom’s adjusted defense numbers. Richmond’s Tyler Burton and Nathan Cayo are both credible defenders, but neither has had to tangle with an opponent with anywhere near the scoring talent as Murray this season. As phenomenal as Keegan was against Big Ten opponents, his scoring numbers against mid-major opponents show a player who is basically unstoppable when he gets into the paint, scoring 26.4 points per game and shooting an otherworldly 76.2% from two. Add in his vast improvement as a three-point shooter over the course of the season, and Keegan is likely to be a major problem for the Spiders.
Richmond’s best chance to stop Murray may be to play him off the court by forcing him into foul trouble, something which Tyler Burton, who draws fouls at a rate of 4.9 per 40 minutes, may be capable of doing. However, Keegan has become much better at defending without fouling as the season progressed and has not committed four fouls in a game since January 31. If Murray can avoid getting sent to Fran McCaffery’s dreaded two-foul jail, expect the Naismith candidate to continue his excellent offensive play and help keep both the Hawkeye win streak and their dreams of making a deep tournament run alive.