As the Iowa basketball team prepares to tip off its stay at the Battle 4 Atlantis tonight, what are realistic expectations for their opening contest with Xavier and the two games to follow?
To quickly run down Iowa’s season to this point, the Hawkeyes have compiled a relatively worry free 5-0 record. Wins against UNC-Wilmington, Nebraska-Omaha, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Abilene Christian, and Penn have come by an average margin of 38 ppg.
Head coach Fran McCaffery and his Iowa squad are hoping that this three game stint on Paradise Island in the Bahamas will provide a few of the non-conference resume-building wins that were lacking for the Hawkeyes last season in their bid to make the NCAA Tournament.
The first round matchup with Xavier tonight will provide the Hawkeyes with such, and will also be their first true taste of like competition this season.
Like Iowa, the Musketeers enter tonight’s matchup with a 5-0 record with each of the victories coming at home. However, Xavier does already possess a quality victory over a major conference opponent with a 67-63 triumph over Tennessee (a team Iowa/Xavier could see in the second round tomorrow night).
The Musketeers, entering their first season in the newly reformed Big East are no stranger to high level competition, having made 11 appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 2001. This Xavier team is similar to Iowa in that they are unafraid to go 10 deep and boast a front line with length and girth.
If the Hawkeyes are going to come away with a victory this Thanksgiving night, it will all start with trying to slow down Xavier’s super sophomore guard Semaj Christon. The 6-3 Christon is one of the most underrated stars in college basketball, posting over 15 points and 4.5 assists per game last year as well as through the first five games of 2013-14. If Iowa can make him work for open looks and limit his supporting cast it will go a long way towards helping them come out victorious.
I think the Hawkeyes can and will come away with a victory against the Musketeers tonight based on their ability to throw numerous looks at the opposition on both ends of the floor. This game presents a great opportunity for Iowa to showcase their nation’s leading field goal percentage defense (31.2%) to harass Christon and company for 40 minutes. On the offensive end, I see 6-9 forwards Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff utilizing their versatility to put points on the board and create open looks for teammates.
I’m looking for an Iowa victory somewhere in the neighborhood of 77-71 to open their stay in the Caribbean. My predicted MVP goes out to junior Aaron White, who just might be playing with some extra motivation as an Ohio native who was lightly recruited by many of his in-state schools like Xavier.
An X-factor could be free throw shooting. The Musketeers shoot just under 60 percent as a team from the charity stripe, while Iowa has proven itself to be very adept at getting to the line while shooting a high percentage (74%). A disparity like this could prove to be the difference in a tightly contested battle.
Should everything go according to plan (knock on wood) the Hawkeye will likely be looking at a matchup with the Tennessee Volunteers in round 2.
Out of the SEC, the Vols are a borderline top 25 team much like Xavier. Known for their physical style of play, they will challenge Iowa on the interior with two defensive end-sized post players in junior Jarnell Stokes and senior Jeronne Maymon (both listed at 6-8, 260 pounds.
Supplementing this bruising presence inside is preseason All-SEC guard Jordan McRae. An NBA-type wing, McRae enters the tournament averaging 21.5ppg.
I see this potential game playing out much the same as the Xavier contest. An explosive scorer like McRae can ruin the night of any opposition if he gets going, so the Hawkeyes will need to look to force him into low-percentage looks while eliminating second chance opportunities for the Vols.
Tennessee lacks the same type of depth and unselfish style characterized by Iowa. I believe the all-around play of the Hawkeyes on both ends will be what pushes them to victory in this matchup by a score of 69-62.
The key players for the Hawkeyes will be any of the eight contributors listed at 6-6 or taller. Iowa can survive a big night from McRae, but not if it comes in tandem with the bigs of Tennessee getting put-backs and creating extra possessions through offensive rebounding. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabe Olaseni could prove to be crucial in this game off of the Hawkeye bench.
A second consecutive victory would almost certainly land the Hawkeyes a tournament final matchup with Kansas, the heavy favorite on the other side of the bracket.
The #2 ranked Jayhawks have proven themselves to be one of/if not THE top team in college basketball this year. Not only do they have maybe the number one overall pick in next year’s NBA draft in Andrew Wiggins, but another 9-10 players provide coach Bill Self a roster laden with talent and depth.
For as young and relatively inexperienced as the Jayhawks are, unselfishness and smart play are two traits that describe the team to a tee. Kansas ranks 8th nationally in rebounding and 1st in field goal percentage. Adding numbers like that to one of the most talented rosters in the country makes for nightmare matchup.
For Iowa to have a chance in a game like this they need to utilize their experience and efficient play to hopefully frustrate the youthful Jayhawks. If the Hawkeyes can keep the game close into the second half there is always a chance for an upset to occur.
Should they meet, this uber-talented Kansas squad is one that I see being too much for Iowa to handle. I’m never willing to rule out the possibly of an upset, but short of injury or serious foul trouble it’s more probable that a Battle 4 Atlantis championship trophy will be heading back to Lawrence, Kansas.
A team like Kansas can blow out almost any opponent if given the opportunity to do so. Therefore if the Hawkeyes want to keep this game close, they will need to limit the fast-breaks and easy buckets that the Jayhawks thrive on. I see a final score in the vicinity of 84-72, with Iowa hanging tough until the latter stages of the game.
Should this weekend turn out at all similar to the predictions I have laid out, the Iowa team and fans alike should be more than happy with the performance. It would almost assuredly provide a boost to the #23 ranking the Hawkeyes carry into the tournament, and tremendously enhance the non-conference strength of schedule we all know is so valued by the NCAA Tournament selection committee when it comes to inclusion and seeding.
Look for this Iowa team to make it’s return flight home from Paradise pleased but not satisfied. Which is likely the exact type of attitude coach Fran McCaffery will be looking for.