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NCAA Tournament: Previewing 8 Iowa v 9 Auburn

Can the Hawkeyes weather the Tigers’ defense?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Birmingham Practice Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Iowa Hawkeyes (19-13, 11-9) and Auburn Tigers (20-12, 10-8) are looking to put a different spin on their season with an NCAA Tournament run. Iowa entered the final week with a chance at a second place finish & double-bye in the conference tournament but lost their final two games after torching Indiana. The Tigers 16-3 start contrasts with their 4-9 close.

Considering the additional blogs we’ve gotten up this week, we’ll get straight to it, but only after plugging them:

What Hawkeye output shows up from behind the arc?

It’s been a tale of two teams for Iowa. When their shot is dropping from deep at a modest 30% clip, they’re 18-2. Five of those games came away from home. When they’re under that threshold, they’re an ugly 1-11 with 10 of those games at road or neutral environments. Adding concern is how good Auburn is at defending the three, with opponents hitting just 28.5% of attempts alongside limiting them to threes as 34.2% of opponent field goals.

Two parts...lets dispell Auburn’s three-point defense a little bit. While Iowa isn’t lighting the world on fire at 34.1% from deep, they rank 11th of Auburn’s 26 opponents. 11 times, they played games against teams who were 300th or worse from behind the arc. So while I think it’s good, I’m not sure it’s that good.

The four times teams who shot better than Iowa on the season who came away with wins against Auburn did so by not settling for 3. They took a small number of high quality looks - West Virginia had the most with 20 3PA - and shot a collective 43.8% from deep.

But for Iowa, the key is to get those quality looks. Kris Murray and Payton Sandfort are Iowa’s best shooters and should be taking the bulk of the three-point attempts. Sandfort, especially, strikes me as a guy who can take advantage of the size mismatch he’s likely to have to shoot over the top of Auburn’s shorter guards. I wouldn’t go so far as to start him but a good game from him probably means a good game for Iowa writ large.

What happens when those shots don’t fall?

The worst thing which can happen is if Iowa allows missed shots to snowball into quick shots to climb themselves out of a hole they may find themselves in. They’ll also have to keep their heads on, as the Tigers do a really nice job forcing turnovers - 11.6% steal percentage ranks 38th in the country (8.0/game) - and turning them into points. That will allow the Birmingham crowd to gain even more steam behind them.

The two most obvious areas where Iowa can impact the game without their jumpers falling are free throws and offensive rebounds. Despite (or perhaps due to?) the Tigers blocking 13.8% of opponent shots (5.1/game), they allow opponents to get to the free throw line almost at will, ranking in the bottom 40 of the country. They’ve got 12 foul outs on the season, with post Johni Broome leading the way with four.

The biggest advantage might be Iowa’s offensive rebounding. The Hawks have really come on in that area, ranking 2nd in conference games by rebounding 31.2% of their misses. Sandfort has been good here, as has Tony Perkins. One KenPom stat which sticks wayyy out is that Auburn shooting guards (by his classification) have corralled just 11.6% of their defensive rebounds, 345th highest proportion in the country. Iowa’s shooting guards have snagged 14.0% percent of Iowa’s offensive rebounds (96th highest proportion).

Can Iowa do enough on defense?

Auburn has had a couple stinkers offensively but are overall pretty capable. 20 of their 32 games have been at/above 70 points which is a tad shy of Iowa’s 24 of 32. There’s a top end Iowa can achieve (9 games at/over 90) which might be more difficult for Auburn to achieve (have done it twice) but it’s March and I’m hesitant to believe we’ll see a game settle into a game where both teams approach 90 in regulation. (and there’s a case that even that is not necessarily to benefit: see 2021 against Oregon where they set their season-high against Iowa)

That means we’re going to see a slower tempo game and Iowa will have to VALUE every possession in ways they have not shown in the past. The good news is that Auburn is willing to throw away some possessions with contested jumpers (31.4% from deep as a team) but it will be imperative for Iowa to finish those possessions by way of defensive rebounding. Iowa’s been just okay there on the season. It will need to be a team effort with the size and athleticism Auburn’s frontcourt possesses.

One last bit is that while Auburn is generally okay at taking care of the ball, where they do struggle is in those live ball situations, where opponents have a 10.4% steal percentage which ranks 310th.

While Houston is a tough hill to climb for either team, a win for the Hawks or Tigers can offer a different trendline than what both teams are currently experience. Here’s hoping Iowa can do enough to notch a 20-win season for their 6th straight season and keep their tournament hopes alive.