We’ve done our best here at Down the Drive to get to know the Iowa Hawkeyes and how to triumph over them in a game of basketball. However, there is only so much information you can get from the outside. In the interest of learning even more before the Cincinnati Bearcats tangle with the Hawkeyes in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, we had a chat with Harrison Starr of SB Nation’s Black Hearts Gold Pants. Here’s what we discovered.
Down the Drive: Iowa lost four-straight games to end the regular season. What was behind their difficult finish and can it be reversed in time for Friday’s game?
Harrison Star: Iowa’s late season swoon probably extends all the way back to mid-February, after back-to-back wins against Michigan and at Indiana more or less locked them into the tournament. They were able to win two straight games at the buzzer (more on this later) and sat at 9-5 in conference with a chance for a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
A loss to Maryland locked them into the 6-seed but they were able to beat Indiana a second time. Since then, it’s been five losses in six games with a blowout in the Big Ten Tournament over Illinois as the only win. These games have been marred by slow starts, porous defense and an absence of three-point shooting which was so good to Iowa throughout the first 20 or so games. Too often, Iowa is unable to maintain their defense effort when the offense wanes, which has made the susceptible to the blowout.
It’s probably worth noting this is the third time Fran McCaffery has seen a good team be significantly worse as a season ended compared to its high-water mark in January or February (2014 & 2016). This hints at some structural issue within Fran’s season management. Players said this week they were happy to play a team who didn’t have 10 years’ worth of scouting against them.
DTD: This is clearly going to be a game of different tempos, with Iowa trying to push it and UC grinding it to a halt. How will the Hawkeyes attempt to make sure they get the advantage?
HS: It’s going to have to start on defense, especially with a focus on securing the rebound. Iowa does not necessarily run a lot of transition offense, per se, but is very comfortable running a single action to get an open look or trip to the foul line. Against a team like Cincinnati, it’s probably the right game plan to take an early open look if it’s there because there’s no guarantee a better shot might come along with their defense.
The flipside of this is a quick shot with an unbalanced floor has opened the Iowa defense up to transition opportunities, even against more slowly paced teams. With Cincinnati’s athleticism, they’ll have some of these chances.
DTD: Iowa takes and makes a lot of free throws, ranking fourth in the nation in made foul shots. What exactly about their game plan lends itself to such production?
HS: After Iowa won the 2K Classic, I posited that the Hawks would be a really, really good Pac-12 team. They had requisite toughness, sure, and were willing to bang down low but there is a finesse to their game which was exposed in the Big Ten season. After leading the country in KenPom’s FT Rate, it dipped throughout conference season as fouls were harder to come by.
Frankly, a lot of it is going to depend on how the game is called. I expect one fan base to be pretty peeved about it, especially if the game is decided by (an absence of) foul calls.
As for making free throws, they just have some pretty good free throw shooters: Luka Garza is around 80 percent and could find himself at the line if his crafty moves are getting Bearcats in the air down low. Jordan Bohannon feels automatic, especially if it is in an “ice the game” situation. A good day for Tyler Cook at the stripe might mean the difference between a win and a loss.
DTD: Conversely, the Hawkeyes seem to have trouble on defense. Is that a symptom of the quick tempo they favor or are there reasons to be concerned?
HS: There are definitely reasons to be concerned about defense. Iowa is certainly willing to give up a quick bucket or two if it means they can get three or four on the other end but sometimes it can get ugly quickly. This is particularly apparent when they throw out their 1-2-2 press which can lead to a corner three or some other high percentage shot. But sometimes those shots don’t drop and Iowa can find themselves getting an open look on the other end.
They mainly run the press out after a made free throw, though, and do it more to take 10-15 seconds off the shot clock versus forcing a ton of turnovers. With a guy like Cumberland, though, it might not matter, since he can seemingly make shots for himself or others out of thin air.
DTD: With the game on the line, who do you want taking a shot for this team?
HS: Jordan Bohannon. There was a stretch where it felt like he couldn’t miss in the final minutes of a game. He’s also missed a couple in those situations, but if he gets a clean look — even if it’s from 30 feet — it feels like it’s going in.
DTD: The Bearcats will win if they ______.
HS: …get unexpected shooting from somewhere. I expect Iowa’s defense to be zone-heavy with a focus on Jarron Cumberland and Justin Jenifer above the arc. If someone else hits a couple early threes, it could send the defense into a tizzy.
DTD: If there was one thing you could change about how Iowa plays, what would it be?
HS: The lever for Iowa to pull, in my view, is to commit to a full-time press. A lot of their current issues around the defensive end are personnel-based — just too slow on the perimeter — so it’s not like this team with this core is going to become a great defensive team overnight. So I think this sort of change would play into Fran’s desire of a faster game and even the talent gap a little bit. Fran typically likes to have about 10 bodies but doesn’t necessarily leverage the depth in that way.
DTD: Lastly, who wins and why?
HS: I’ve wavered so much on this game I’ve given myself whiplash. At this moment, though, after about 1,000 words on mainly Iowa’s faults, I’m not feeling particularly optimistic. I’ll say it’s a close one but Cumberland and the pseudo-home court advantage put Cincinnati over the edge for a 69-65 game.
DTD: BONUS QUESTION: Which teams will make up this year’s Final Four?
HS: I think I’m going to ride the 3 ACC 1 seeds and Michigan. UNC over Duke in the title game even though I so want it to be Virginia.