Both the Iowa men’s and women’s basketball teams enter this week with identical goals: win two consecutive basketball games to earn a berth to the Sweet Sixteen. Earning a spot in the tournament’s second weekend would mean something slightly different to each team. For the men, it would end a drought that extends back to 1999 and would be Fran McCaffery’s first ever Sweet Sixteen bid as a head coach. For the women, it would help erase the memory of last season’s upset loss to #10-seeded Creighton in the Round of 32, which was a bitter end to an otherwise excellent season. Fundamentally, however, earning a bid to the Sweet Sixteen would mean the same thing for both programs: being only four victories away from a national championship.
Of the two Iowa squads, the men face a tougher path to the Sweet Sixteen by virtue of their #8 seed. The Hawkeyes’ first step involves defeating #9-seeded Auburn on Thursday evening, a team coached by former Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl that is one year removed from a 28-win campaign and four years removed from a trip to the Final Four. One might say that the Tigers have been inconsistent this season, but that is actually misleading, as Auburn has actually been consistently bad since late January after playing like one of the country’s elite teams for the first three months of play. While Auburn got off to a scintillating 16-3 start to the year, they proceeded to lose nine of their last thirteen games and saw cracks exposed in what had been one of the top defenses in college basketball from November-most of January.
Auburn poses an intriguing matchup for the Hawkeyes. Auburn is somehow even worse on the road than Iowa is (the Tigers have not won away from Neville Arena since January 21), yet they will have the luxury of playing only a two-hour drive from their home campus and should have a clear majority of fans in the stands. The Tigers also boast several skilled wing and post defenders they can throw at Iowa’s leading scorers Kris Murray and Filip Rebraca to slow them down, and have held opponents to only 46.8% shooting from two this season thanks in large part to their stout interior defense. Second-team All-SEC guard Wendell Green Jr. is also the kind of quick, shifty point guard who has often given Iowa trouble over the years, and there is a real chance he will be able to frustrate Iowa’s guards off the dribble for much of the game. However, Auburn is a bad outside shooting team (31.4% from three on the year) that is not equipped to punish Iowa for its often lax perimeter defense, and has often struggled with allowing offense rebounds (they rank 331st in the country in most offensive rebounds gathered by their opponents). Iowa’s guards should also have a size and strength advantage over Auburn’s backcourt, so don’t be surprised if Tony Perkins is able to get to the rim or if Payton Sandfort manages to get shots off against players like Green (5’11”), K.D. Johnson (6’1”), and Zed Jasper (6’1”).
If the Hawks manage to beat Auburn, they will have to knock off the #1 seed Houston Cougars to reach the Sweet Sixteen (assuming Northern Kentucky doesn’t pull an historic upset in the Round of 64). Houston plays arguably the most suffocating defense in college basketball. The Cougars have the best defensive rating in the country (87.2), allow the second fewest points per game (56.5), and are ranked fourth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric (89.6). Point guard Jamal Shead is one of the best lockdown defenders in the sport, and his tenacious perimeter defense is one of the key reasons Houston has held its opponents to the second lowest three-point shooting percentage in basketball (27.8%). When the Cougars have the ball, they play at one of the slowest paces in the country (343rd in the nation in adjusted tempo according to KenPom), but also rank 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, proving that their low offensive output is often a feature rather than a bug.
Houston should have a clear advantage over an Iowa team that has been inconsistent on the road and played poorly to end the season, but there is reason to believe the Cougars may not be at full strength. First-team All-American guard Marcus Sasser sat out Houston’s AAC Championship game against Memphis last Sunday after suffering a groin injury the day prior, resulting in a Houston loss to a team that now shares the same NCAA Tournament seeding as Iowa. Sasser is the engine that drives the Houston offense and a key cog to their defense, and the Hawkeyes would have more than a fighting chance to pull the upset if he misses the game or plays at less than full strength. If Sasser is back in action, however, the Hawkeyes will need to play their most complete game of the year and shoot better from three than the 28.2% of shots they have made away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena so far this season to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Iowa women have an easier path to advance to the second weekend of the tournament, but not one that is without potential pitfalls. The #2-seeded Hawkeyes’ first round matchup comes against the Southeastern Louisiana Lady Lions, a team that won 21 games en route to a Southland Conference tournament championship. This matchup will be an interesting battle of strength on strength, as Iowa’s nation-leading scoring offense (87.5 points per game) takes on one of the country’s top defenses which holds opponent to only 54.5 points per game. Earlier this year, Southeastern Louisiana limited LSU (the nation’s third-highest scoring offense) to more than 20 points fewer than their season average while allowing only 41% shooting from the field. Yet the Hawkeyes should have a clear size and athleticism advantage over their opponents. The Lady Lions have only one player in their rotation who stands 6’0” or above, and Iowa’s guards should be able to exploit this on both sides of the ball.
Should Iowa avoid the upset in the Round of 64, they will play the winner of the game between #7 Florida State and #10 Georgia. If the Seminoles advance, fans will be treated to a matchup between two high-scoring offenses (FSU averages 80.1 points per game, good for 10th in the nation) and two elite guards in Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Florida State’s Ta’Niya Latson. The ACC Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.3 points per game in her first year playing college basketball and has more than lived up to her five-star pedigree. Between Latson and defensive stalwart Makayla Timpson, the Seminoles have enough weapons to give the Hawkeyes a run for their money. One key matchup to watch would be whether low post weapon Monika Czinano and the Hawkeyes, who lead the nation in two-point field goal percentage (59.5%), will be able to control the paint against an FSU team that is eighth in college basketball in both rebounds (43.2) and blocks per game (5.5) and is holding opponents to only 38.9% shooting from two this season.
Georgia, meanwhile, is led by a talented duo of UCF transfers in Diamond Battles and Brittney Smith. Battles is one of the toughest perimeter defenders in college basketball and could provide a fun but challenging matchup for the dynamic Caitlin Clark, while Smith is an efficient low-post scorer who led her conference in both player efficiency rating (26.5) and win shares-per 40 minutes (.246) last season. Florida State may be the more talented of Iowa’s two potential opponents, but Georgia would provide the biggest contrast in styles. Caitlin Clark alone makes as many three-pointers per game as Georgia does as a team (3.4), and Iowa would have to either successfully dictate its style to the Bulldogs or adapt the aggressive, defensive, interior-based brand of basketball its opponent wants to play.
Both the Iowa men and women have had strong seasons, and a Sweet Sixteen berth would help validate their successful campaigns. While the Iowa women seem to have more legitimate championship aspirations than the men, both teams have proven capable of beating elite competition when they are on their game, as evidenced by their respective late-season victories over highly-regarded Indiana squads. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament will give them a chance to add to their already impressive resumes by notching two more wins against top-tier opponents.