In their ninth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Cincinnati Bearcats will play the role of the seventh seed in the South Region. That role comes along with a first round matchup against the 10th-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes out of the Big Ten on Friday afternoon at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The Story So Far
The Bearcats will begin play in yet another NCAA Tournament with the title of American Athletic Conference champions on their resume for the second-straight season. As the second seed in the league tourney, they bested Wichita State, SMU and regular season champ Houston en route to that championship. When you add in their regular season accomplishments, you are left with a 28-6 team that ranked 22nd in the final AP poll of the season. Although there is a legitimate argument to be made that their seventh seeding is a bit insulting, the Bearcats can’t do much about it and must now prepare to make a run against the Hawkeyes.
Speaking of those Hawkeyes, they are not so decorated in recent accomplishments. They lost four-straight games to end the regular season and five of their last six when you count their efforts in the Big Ten Conference Tournament. This team was once ranked among the top 15 teams in the country, but going 10-10 in league play brought them down a degree. However, there is no ignoring the fact that they have quality wins against tournament teams like Oregon, Iowa State, Ohio State and Michigan. If they can rekindle what was working earlier in the season, they will be formidable beyond this game.
If you like high-speed basketball, then the Bearcats are not the team for you. They play a very deliberate style on offense, averaging only 63.3 possessions per 40 minutes, according to KenPom, which ranks 338th out of 353 teams nationally as of writing. They force their opponents into the same type of offensive standstill by making the paint an impossible place to score (20th nationally in block rate). If there is a weak point to this attack that ranks 28th nationally in adjusted defense, it is defending the three. The Bearcats allowed the second-highest three-point field goal percentage among AAC teams this season.
On an individual level, the Bearcats are led by Jarron Cumberland. The American Athletic Conference Player of the Year just scored 33 points in the AAC title game and leads the team in scoring (18.8 PPG) and assists (3.6 PG). Other players that will make an impact are Nysier Brooks (8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.5 BPG), Trevon Scott (9.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG), Justin Jenifer (8.2 PPG, 44.5 percent from three), Cane Broome (8.3 PPG, 2.2 APG) and Keith Williams (10.1 PPG).
March always seems like a time when teams with diametrically opposed philosophies clash. We have another example of that in this one. The Hawkeyes are the 15th most efficient offense in college basketball, according to KenPom, scoring 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Their passing is the key, as they are 32nd in the country in assists, and they also create plenty of foul shots for themselves. They don’t exactly match their offensive success on the other end however, allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions. They are particularly susceptible to buckets close to the hoop, with teams shooting 51.5 percent against them on two-point attempts.
Iowa features four double figure scorers, but Tyler Cook is the top option, averaging 14.9 points per game on a true shooting rate of 56.2 percent. He is also the top rebounder on the squad (7.9 RPG), although Luka Garza (12.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG) and Nicholas Baer (6.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG) need to be boxed out as well. Jordan Bohannon (11.3 PPG, 3.4 APG), Joe Wieskamp (10.8 PPG) and Isaiah Moss (9.1 PPG) are all capable three-point shooters, with Bohannon also a talented distributor.
Players to Watch
Iowa - Luka Garza
The easy answer here would be Cook or Bohannon. I’m a bit more interested in how the Bearcats will handle the 6’11” sophomore. Garza can spread the floor and capitalize if the Bearcats’ aggressive defensive gives him frequent chances at the line. He is shooting better than 80 percent at the line on 3.3 attempts per game. He has also made 19 three-pointers this season, which isn’t a lot but the Bearcats still have to pay attention when he’s not in the paint, especially since he actually leads the team in usage rate (25.9 percent). Garza is also the best offensive rebounder on the team, at least by rate (9.0 percent). The Bearcats play an all or nothing style that makes every shot critical. If Garza can give the Hawkeyes some extra chances, that won’t lead to good things for the Bearcats.
Cincinnati - Jarron Cumberland
Although the Hawkeyes have had several days to formulate a game plan on how to defend the Bearcats, there is only so much they can put together in the time given. When there’s a guy on the stat sheet averaging 18.8 points per game and with a usage rate above 30 percent, that’s going to be where you start. Cumberland played his best game of the entire season and possibly his career in the AAC title game, pouring in a personal best 33 points to lift the Bearcats past Houston. The Bearcats may not need him to be so heroic in this game, but they need him to be pretty close.
If you think momentum matters at this time of year, then the Bearcats are the clear choice. It’s unlikely that the game will play out that way, however. Expect UC to force Iowa to play slower than it might like but for both teams to trade the lead for 40 minutes before the Bearcats, buoyed by their history of finding ways to win in crunch time, do it once more. Cincinnati 70 Iowa 67