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Efficient Cincinnati defense presents tough test for Hawkeyes

When looking at playing style and metrics, it might be hard to find a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup featuring two more polar opposite teams than Iowa and Cincinnati. When they take the court Friday at 11:15am Central, the Hawkeyes and Bearcats will square off in a classic battle of offense vs. defense.

Cincinnati will pose possibly the greatest test yet for an Iowa squad that led the Big Ten in scoring at just over 78 points per game but has proven wildly inconsistent over the balance of the season. The Bearcats, in the Big Dance for the ninth consecutive year under head coach Mick Cronin, rely on a highly efficient defensive system and a deliberate pace of play to limit opposing offenses—they rank 28th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, allowing just under 95 points per 100 possessions, and enter the tournament with the 16th-lowest adjusted tempo rating (63.2 possessions/40 minutes).

On the flip side statistically, the Hawkeyes come in at 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency (117.2 points/100 possessions) with an adjusted tempo number of 69.2, putting them well within the top 100 in that category.

Based on the stats, you could draw the conclusion that Friday’s game will be a proverbial tug-of-war between two teams who win in very different ways. A look at what the Hawkeyes and Bearcats have actually put on tape all but confirms that assumption.

For Iowa, the narrative is likely the same as it’s been all season—the outside shots need to fall and free throw attempts must be abundant. If there’s one weak spot in Cincinnati’s defensive attack, it’s their 35.1% three-point percentage against, which ranks 227th nationally. The Hawkeyes’ feature four regular players who shoot 38% or better from deep and have made ten or more threes eleven times this season, though you would never have guessed that by watching their last game, when they went just 1-16 from three-point range against a Michigan team who never relented in their defensive pressure.

And that is where Cincinnati’s choice of defensive strategy will be key as it relates to Iowa’s ability to score. The Hawkeyes have struggled this season against teams who like to turn up the heat and play aggressive man-to-man defense. In six games against Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State, all of whom rank in the top ten nationally for adjusted defensive efficiency, Iowa went 1-5, with five of its six lowest point totals of the season coming in losses to those teams.

It will be interesting to see how Cronin decides to defend against an Iowa team that can be lethal from the outside on any given night, but also holds a demonstrable size advantage over the Bearcats. Will he dial up the intensity along the perimeter and leave Tyler Cook and Luka Garza one-on-one down low? Or will he take his chances with Iowa’s sometimes spotty long-range shooting and make sure to clog the lane and make things messy for the Hawkeye big men?

Remember those three Big Ten opponents that gave Iowa fits? There’s another common thread between them—they each rank in the lower half of the adjusted tempo ratings, with Michigan and Wisconsin both residing in the bottom-35. A slower pace has not been ideal for an Iowa team that would prefer to rack up as many possessions as possible to give them more field goal attempts.

In the simplest of terms, look at it this way: a six-possession disparity between Iowa and Cincinnati leaves a potential 18 points completely off the board—you don’t even have an opportunity to score points on possessions you don’t have. Over the course of a game, six possessions may not seem like much, but a slower pace of play puts a premium on scoring chances and making the most of each possession. Whether or not the Hawkeyes are able to do that will tell the story in this one.

Top photo: David Banks/USA Today sports

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