Cincinnati has a date to the dance. Following their unexpected poaching of the Houston Cougars, they’re a 7-seed for the NCAA Tournament, facing the 10-seed Iowa Hawkeyes in Columbus at 12:15 p.m. on Friday.
The Bearcats are hoping for a repeat of last year's tournament, believe it or not. A year ago, 7-seed Nevada knocked off 10-seed Texas before stunning the 2-seed Bearcats to stamp a trip to the second weekend. Now it's Cincinnati's turn to take care of the 10-seed in the first round and take a shot at springing the upset on 2-seed Tennesee on Sunday.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
It's time to take a peek at what the Hawkeyes do. I'm not an analyst, and I'm not sure it matters this year. These Bearcats have turned even the smartest pundits into puddles of questions. They bucked the "rebuilding" label, peeling off 25 wins in the regular season. Just when it seemed like they'd died, they sprang from the casket and raced to an AAC Tournament Championship.
All I can do is look at the numbers. For this exercise, I'll turn to KenPom.com, my trusted resource. Here's what we can expect for Friday.
What Cincinnati Does Well
Defensive efficiency! The Bearcats are not the standard they usually are, but 28th nationally in defensive efficiency is nothing to overlook. These Hawkeyes have seen some defense. Big Ten opponents Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State all rank top-10 in that category, and Iowa went 1-5 against those teams this season. Recently, Wisconsin got to them for a 20-point victory late in the regular season, and Michigan bounced them from the Big Ten Tournament with a 21-point win last week. In a broad sense, this is going to be the battle to watch. The Hawkeyes are 15th nationally in offensive efficiency, right on par with the Mississippi State team that trounced the Bearcats in December, and not far from the Houston team the Bearcats just beat in the AAC title game. Something has to give, and UC will be hoping defense in front of a pro-Bearcat crowd will win out.
Two-point defense! Cincinnati has held opponents to an impressive 44.7% from inside the arc, something just 17 other teams in the country can claim. Iowa's offense inside is pretty tepid. They're good for 51.5%, or 111th in the nation. It's certainly above average, but nothing to hang your hat on.
Blocks! The Bearcats rank 11th nationally in block percentage, but Iowa ranks 62nd in avoiding them.
Holding onto the ball! Cincinnati's offensive turnover percentage is 29th-best, and only one team (Michigan) does a better job of avoiding steals. UC will need to maximize this strength because Iowa won't force them to cough it up. They're only average in forcing turnovers.
Offensive rebounding! This is another crucial area, and it's what the Bearcats have used all year to help turn an unsuspecting group into a reliable offensive unit. The 'Cats rank fourth in offensive rebound percentage, and the Hawkeyes allow teams to feast on the offensive glass. They rank 222nd nationally in allowing offensive boards. Cincinnati gobbles up an impressive 37.6% of possible offensive rebounds, and Iowa opponents have feasted for 29% all season. This is a stat to watch Friday.
What Iowa Does Well
Three-point shooting! Cincinnati fans were traumatized by it for much of the season, and it doesn't appear to be going away just yet. The 'Cats are giving up 35.1% beyond the arc, 217th in America. The Hawkeyes can shoot from deep. They're shooting 36.1% from outside as a team, good for 91st in the nation. The good news for UC is they don't take a ton of shots from there. KenPom says 39% of their attempts come from behind the arc (just a hair above average), and 31% of their points come from deep (just a hair below average). While they make them efficiently, it's typically not something Iowa focuses on heavily. The Hawkeyes do not run an aerial assault, but the Bearcats still need to watch themselves and draw up some of that defense they used to bottle Houston.
Getting to the line! Only ten teams in America get a higher percentage of their points at the stripe than Iowa does. Only one of those ten (16-seed Prairie View A&M) is in the tournament. Iowa has used the free-throw line to bolster its offense all season. The good news for Cincinnati is they typically don't allow opponents to do so—only allowing 17.1% of opponent scoring there. (That ranks them just outside the top 100—pretty good.)
Free-throw shooting! Iowa shoots 74% from the stripe, good for the country's 72nd-best mark. The Bearcats aren't used to this, and it’s part of the reason they don't allow many points at the line, as I mentioned above. UC opponents have made free-throws at a horrid 66.4% clip this season, and just 16 teams have benefited more from poor opponent efficiency at the charity stripe. This is another key statistic category to watch Friday. The Bearcats must keep the Hawkeyes off the line because they'll make them pay as they have with opponents all year.
Offensive rebounding! Yep, both teams are good at crashing the offensive glass and earning second-chance points. Iowa's advantage when they have the ball doesn't figure to be as drastic as Cincinnati's, but the Hawkeyes are still well above average (112th), while the Bearcats are surprisingly bad about allowing them (230th).
Passing! The Hawkeyes record an assist on 60.2% of their field goals, #21 in the country. The Bearcats allow assists on just over half of opponent field goals, which is slightly more than average. Mick Cronin loves him some deflections, and Cincinnati using its length to cut off passing lanes would help short-circuit an Iowa offense predicated on ball movement. As you might guess, all that passing means Iowa allows some steals. It's the only area of their offense where they have a glaring weakness, and the Bearcats are pretty good at snatching em up. The Hawkeyes are just outside the top-100 worst at allowing them, and the Bearcats are just outside the top-100 best at recording them.
Iowa has the height. You can't teach size, and Iowa's average player stands 78.4" (6'6"). The average Bearcat is 76.8" (6'4"), right on the national average.
Both of these teams are bottom-five in two-foul participation, which means any player that picks up a second foul in the first half Friday is almost certainly going to be riding the pine. Something to keep an eye on.
Iowa doesn’t have the experience that Cincinnati does. The average Hawkeye has 1.52 years of experience (223rd), while the average Bearcat has 1.93 years (98th).