IOWA (22-11) VS. CINCINNATI (28-6)
DATE: March 22, 2019
TIME: 11:15 a.m. CT
LOCATION: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio
RADIO: Learfield Sports
STREAMING: CBS March Madness Live
LINE: Cincinnati -3.5
KENPOM: Cincinnati -1 (Iowa 47% win probability)
Good news: The Iowa Hawkeyes make their triumphant return to the NCAA Tournament Friday morning. It's the first time since 2016 that Iowa has appeared in the tourney.
Bad news: Iowa has lost six of their last eight games, and is facing a very good opponent in a virtual road game, and pretty much nobody expects them to win. Welcome back to March!
So, Cincinnati won the AAC Championship last week by knocking off Houston. They're good, and they're on a run. Mick Cronin is still the Bearcats' coach after thirteen years on the job, and Cincinnati fits a very specific Cronin profile: They don't move too quickly, they're excellent defensively (particularly on interior defense). They only allow 45 percent shooting from inside the three-point arc, and block nearly 15 percent of all shot attempts. Opponents get nearly 40 percent of all points from three-point baskets, mostly because Cincinnati makes it so difficult to operate inside. All of those three-point attempts lead to a bunch of long rebounds, which drives down the Bearcats' defensive rebound rate, but most teams don't shoot well enough from the perimeter to truly make them pay.
What Cincinnati doesn't do is shoot the ball. There are only three teams in the NCAA Tournament field who shoot at a lower effective rate than the Bearcats. But they make it up with second attempts and possession: Cincinnati is fourth nationally in offensive rebounding rate, pulling down three out of every eight misses, and second nationally in steals allowed. They also get to the free throw line consistently enough to make up for poor shooting rates.
Not all of the Bearcats struggle from the field, though. Junior guard Jarron Cumberland (6'5", 205) averages a team-high 18.8 points per game and shoots 39 percent from three. He does just about everything for Cincinnati at the offensive end: His usage rates are in the top 50 nationally, and yet he manages to lead the team in assists. He also draws six fouls a game, and makes 78 percent at the line.
The rest of Cincinnati's starting five average between 8 and 11 points per game. Senior point guard Justin Jenifer (5'10", 175) is also a perimeter threat (44.5% from three), and forwards Tre Scott (6'8", 225) and Keith Williams (6'5", 210) are effective interior scorers. Center Nysier Brooks (6'10", 240) makes his presence known more at the defensive end, but can work on the interior. There is no doubt that Cincinnati is a bit challenged offensively. There is also no doubt that they match Iowa's size and depth, and play good enough elsewhere to make up for it.
So if you're looking for some positives, here's the thing: Cincinnati does have a tendency to foul quite a bit. Brooks averages 5.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes, which is truly impressive levels of hacking. His backup, Mamoudou Diarra, isn't much better in limited minutes. While Iowa's free throw rate has dropped during Big Ten play -- welcome to B1G officiating! -- that may be exploited Friday morning. There is also the fact that, until that AAC final against Houston, Cincinnati hadn't beaten a team ranked higher than 45th in Kenpom (Iowa is currently 36th). They lost to Ohio State in the season opener and Mississippi State a few weeks later, they lost to Houston a couple of times, and they lost to UCF. They also lost to a truly awful East Carolina team because ECU shot 40 percent from three. Iowa has shown an ability to make pressure defensive teams pay from the perimeter, and may do so again here.
There's also the Cronin record. Under Cronin, Cincinnati has made the tournament nine consecutive years, which is certainly impressive. But the Bearcats have made it out of the first weekend just once during that time. Last year's team, a 2 seed that entered the tournament with Final Four buzz, collapsed in the last ten minutes of a second-round game with Nevada, blew a 17-point lead, and lost by two. Two years earlier, a team with basically this same profile lost in the first round to St. Joseph's. In 2014, Cincinnati was the victim of the infamous 5/12 upset in a first-round loss against Harvard. Cronin is a good coach, and his teams have been quite good. But he also fits a template year-in, year-out, and that makes his squads susceptible to being out-scouted on a short turnaround.
If momentum was all-important, Iowa wouldn't have a chance Friday. The Hawkeyes are slumping, Cincinnati is surging, and it's hard to find an obvious advantage anywhere else between these two teams. But the shift out of conference play and into the NCAAs could benefit Iowa, and if the Hawkeyes can find their range from the perimeter, they've got a serious chance. Absent that, there isn't an obvious route to victory.