After wandering in the wilderness for eight seasons, the Iowa Hawkeyes have finally secured a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. The 11 seed in the Midwest Region comes with an asterisk, however, as Iowa will meet Tennessee on Wednesday in Dayton in what the NCAA calls the “first round.” Dear NCAA: your terminology only deceives those who wish to be deceived. This is a play-in game, with the winner earning the right to be the 11 seed in the Midwest and to face 6th-seeded Massachusetts Friday afternoon.
That should in no way diminish Iowa’s accomplishment in making the NCAA field. Fran McCaffrey has resurrected a program that, frankly, had lost its way ever since Steve Alford lost his moral compass. The disappointment in the Hawkeye fan base is because losing six out seven took Iowa from the 4-5 seed range to the play-in game, but it says here that Iowa is seeded too low (we’re looking at you, BYU).
The only thing that matters now for Iowa, though, is that they’re in and they have to play Tennessee Wednesday night. This game could be an acid test for the theory that momentum matters heading into the NCAAs. A month ago or so, Iowa was hoping for a top-4 seed and Tennessee looked NIT-bound. Since then, the Volunteers have rallied and the Hawkeyes have stumbled into this matchup.
Of course, the unfortunate cloud hanging over the Iowa program has nothing to do with the slide, and everything to do with McCaffrey’s teenage son scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a tumor from his thyroid–on the day of the game, no less. The coach’s plan is to run practice with his team in Dayton on Tuesday, fly back to Iowa City, be at the hospital Wednesday for his son’s surgery, then fly back to Dayton in time for tipoff. It would be stupid to ask if the situation is a distraction–of course it is–so all Iowa can do is focus on overcoming it.
On the court, you can analyze the matchup any number of ways, but it really all comes down to which team can dictate the pace. Iowa wants to run and gun; they average 82 points per game. Tennessee averages just over 71 points per game. The difference doesn’t seem like too much, until you realize it’s the difference between 10th in the country and 168th.
For Iowa to dictate a faster pace, it has to start on the defensive end. The Hawkeyes have to get stops (a HUGE problem in the past 10 games) and get out in transition. Tennessee defends pretty well in the half-court, and Iowa’s confidence in its half-court offense has been lacking in recent weeks. Some transition buckets in the first 15 minutes are crucial for the Hawkeyes to not only dictate the tempo they want to play, but to also boost the confidence of its struggling shooters (which, truth be told, is everyone not named Roy Devyn Marble).
In the end, there’s a reason things like heart and determination are called intangibles. They’re extremely hard to measure, at least beforehand. Still, if you’re Iowa right now, especially one of the seniors (Marble, Melsahn Basabe, Zach McCabe), you’ve spent so much time working to get to the NCAA Tournament. You have the awful taste in your mouth of the last seven games, and you know now that it nearly cost you the goal you’ve worked so hard to achieve…but now you’re there. You’re in the NCAA Tournament, and you get one more chance at redemption.
Iowa’s problems can’t all be fixed in one day, but on paper, the Hawkeyes have more talent than Tennessee. Quite honestly, the folks at UMass (the 2nd-round opponent) and Duke (the probable 3rd-round opponent) don’t want to see Iowa get back to how they were playing in January. That Iowa team would be considered drastically under-seeded at #11, and would be expected to be a strong contender for the Sweet 16.
Can the Hawkeyes get back to playing their best basketball? They have one final chance to do it Wednesday night. The game tips off at 8:10 Central Time on TruTV.
-Jason Van Arkel is the sports director for Ottumwa Radio.