12 days after Iowa's impressive (and cathartic) Big Ten Tournament title-clinching win over Maryland, Lisa Bluder's bunch is back in action. Iowa hosts 15-seed Mercer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday afternoon (1 PM CT, ESPN2). So what do we know about Mercer?
1) No Mercy For The Southern Conference
The Bears went 25-7 overall and 14-0 in the Southern Conference, which allowed them to cruise to a regular season conference title (no other team was better than 9-5 in league play). It's the fourth straight year they've won at least a share of the regular season title and the second straight year they went 14-0 in conference play. They last lost a regular season conference game on February 2... 2017. That's *checks notes* pretty good.
Mercer did have to sweat in the Southern Conference Tournament, though; they only edged Furman 66-63 in the tournament final to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Last year in the NCAA Tournament Mercer was a 13-seed and narrowly lost to 4-seed Georgia in the first round in Athens, 68-63. So they have some experience when it comes to playing in hostile arenas in March.
2) Oh, You Played Them, Too?
Iowa and Mercer have just one common opponent: Florida State, who beat both teams. Iowa lost to Florida State 71-67 at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas, while Mercer lost at home to Florida State, 57-56. In fact, overall Mercer went 1-4 against power conference opponents this year (1-6 if we count the American Athletic Conference as a power conference), with the lone win coming in a 92-82 win over Florida. The Gators weren't very good, though -- they went 8-23 and finished 12th in the SEC this year.
3) One-Two Punch
The best players on Mercer are senior guard Keke Calloway and senior forward Amanda Thompson. Calloway was named Southern Conference Player of the Year by the conference media, while Thompson was named SoCon POTY by the league coaches. Calloway led the team in scoring with 17.9 ppg and is the definition of a volume scorer: she attempted 549 field goals (nearly 180 more than the next most-prolific shooter) and 237 three-pointers (nearly 70 more threes than her next most-prolific teammate). She made just 39% of her overall field goals and just 31% of her threes. But she's still gonna take a lot of shots. Calloway also had 4.5 rpg and 3.7 apg. Thompson was second on the team with 13.1 ppg (on 48% shooting) and also led the team with 10.7 rpg, while adding 2.8 apg. She also led the team with 2.2 steals per game. The Bears aren't very deep -- their starters all play almost 30 minutes per game (or more) and only two non-starters are averaging more than nine minutes a game. Then again, Iowa's in a similar boat -- all five starters average 28 or more minutes per game and only two bench players play more than seven minutes a game. If either team has to rely on their bench for heavy minutes on Friday, it could be a big problem.
4) Size Matters?
Mercer's starting five has a reasonable amount of size across the board. The shortest player is Calloway, listed at 5-9. Thompson, their top interior player, is listed at 5-10, and the other starters are listed at 5-11, 6-1, and 6-3. The latter player, center Rachel Selph, will probably find herself matched up on Megan Gustafson a lot, although if Mercer is anything like most teams that have played Iowa this year, they'll throw several players at Gustafson to try and slow her down. But Mercer's size advantage in the back court may be something to keep an eye on; the Hawkeyes rely on a back court with no one taller than 5-9 and featuring the pint-sized Tania Davis (5-3). There may be some mismatches there that Mercer can exploit on defense.
5) Slow and Steady
Mercer plays at one of the slower paces in the nation -- the Bears average 67.6 possessions per game, 291st in the nation. By contrast, Iowa averages 70.8 possessions per game, the 139th quickest tempo in the nation. We know Iowa wants to get out and run and play in transition as much as possible. And, historically, more possessions has usually favored the more talented team -- more possessions equals more opportunities to make that talent discrepancy matter. So Mercer will probably want to slow the game down and limit possessions.
Mercer's defense has been fairly stingy all season. They're allowing opponents to score just 61.2 ppg (though, as always, tempo is a key factor there as well) and opponents are shooting just 38.3% from the field against them and 29.3% from 3-point range. The latter stat could be a little worrying for an Iowa team that can struggle to make 3s at the best of times. Mercer also does not turn the ball over -- like at all. Mercer averages just 11.3 turnovers per game, which is fifth best in the nation. The good news for Iowa (who can be rather turnover-prone at times) is that they also don't force a ton of turnovers: just 15.2 per game, 221st in the country.