Iowa WBB: 2022 NCAA Tournament Preview

By BraydonRoberts5 on March 17, 2022 at 1:00 pm
Iowa reacts to the announcement it is a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament
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Iowa ended the season about as well as any team could have. In the last few weeks of the season, the Hawks ran off seven straight wins, with four of those wins coming over teams that ended up as 3-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Iowa’s win over Michigan in front of a sold-out crowd secured the Hawkeyes a share of the Big Ten regular season title. The win over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament final helped them become the first Iowa team to ever win the regular season and Big Ten Tournament titles in the same season.

The question now is can Iowa keep the momentum going in the NCAA Tournament? Let’s take a look at the teams that stand between Iowa and a return to the Sweet 16.

Iowa’s First Weekend Opponent(s)

Let's look at each of the other three teams that will play in Iowa City this weekend. First, we'll look at each team’s wins over 12-seeds or better in the NCAA Tournament, to show the quality wins each team has this season. Then we'll look at the team’s results against opponents Iowa has played. Finally, we'll have some closing thoughts on each team.

For reference, here are Iowa’s wins against 12-seeds or higher:

1) at 3-seed Indiana, 2) vs. 3-seed Indiana, 3) neutral vs. 3-seed Indiana, 4) vs. 3-seed Michigan, 5) at 8-seed Nebraska, 6) vs. 8-seed Nebraska, 7) neutral vs. 8-seed Nebraska, 8) vs. 7-seed UCF

15-seed Illinois State

Wins against 12-seeds or higher: 1) at 11-seed Missouri State

Common opponents: Purdue-L-76-64; Wisconsin-L-70-60; Evansville-W-87-68; Northern Iowa-L-74-67; Evansville-W-75-60; Northern Iowa-L-70-63; Northern Iowa-W-50-48

The Redbirds weren't expected to be an NCAA Tournament team. They went into the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as the 4-seed and needed to win the tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They did just that, defeating Loyola, Southern Illinois, and Northern Iowa over a three-day period.

There's a reason it took that conference tournament run for Illinois State to make the NCAA Tournament. The Redbirds are just 18-13 on the season, and their only win of note was over a Missouri State team that barely made the tournament. 

Digging into their numbers (as provided by HerHoopStats.com), what stands out most about Illinois State is their efficiency. They rate 65th or better (out of 356 teams) in two-point and three-point field goal percentage. They only average 64.4 points per game, however, because most of their opponents play at a very slow pace. 

On the negative side, the Redbirds aren't a good defensive team, as their points surrendered per 100 possessions ranks 258th (which is actually a fair bit worse than Iowa's rating in that stat, if you can believe it). The Redbirds also don't hit the offensive glass particularly well, as their offensive rebound rate ranks 299th. 

Iowa's game against Illinois State will be all about pace of play. If the Hawks can get stops and push in transition, they should have plenty of opportunities against a weak Illinois State defense. If Illinois State can slow things down, the Redbirds might be able to make enough shots to keep the game interesting longer than it should be.

In terms of a comparable team that Iowa has played, Northern Iowa seems best. The Panthers actually had a slightly better offense and defense than the Redbirds, and beat them in their first two games, but the Redbirds got revenge in the conference tournament when it mattered most. 

10-seed Creighton

Wins against 12-seeds or higher: 1) at 10-seed Arkansas, 2) at 11-seed DePaul, 3) vs. 11-seed Villanova (without its best player)

Common opponents: Nebraska-L-67-62; UNI-W-79-72

Unlike Illinois State, Creighton went one and done in its conference tournament, but made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team thanks to a 20-9 season. As you can see, the Bluejays had a couple more notable wins than Illinois State, but those mostly came against lower level at-large tournament teams, and one came against Villanova while its best player was out. 

Like Illinois State, Creighton's offense is what stands out most about the team. The Bluejays rank 8th in the country in two-point field goal percentage and 11th in three-point field goal percentage. The three-point number is especially notable, because the Bluejays rank 12th in the country in three-pointers attempted, and 5th in three-pointers made. They are also one of the higher-scoring teams in the country. 

Creighton's weaknesses (defense and offensive rebounding) are also similar to Illinois State. The Bluejays rank 190th in points surrendered per 100 possessions, and rank 180th in offensive rebounding rate. 

In terms of comparable teams Iowa has played, Nebraska seems best. Creighton's offensive numbers actually rank slightly higher than Nebraska (though against a weaker conference), but Nebraska's defense is better overall. If Iowa plays Creighton, I expect the game to look much like Iowa-Nebraska games do—a fast-paced offensive shootout. If Creighton's shooters get hot, they could cause Iowa problems, but the Hawks have also survived several games where teams shot really well from three-point range. 

One other note is that Creighton's best shooter is Iowa transfer Lauren Jensen. Jensen attempts nearly six three-pointers per game and is shooting 44.4% on those shots. Hopefully the Hawks know her tendencies well and are able to keep her in check better than other teams have if they play.

7-seed Colorado

Wins against 12-seeds or higher: 1) at 7-seed Utah; 2) vs. 5-seed Oregon, 3) neutral vs. 4-seed Arizona (without its best player)

Common opponents:  Samford-W-81-48; Wisconsin-W-67-51

The first thing I noticed when researching Colorado is that the Buffaloes has beaten several good teams, but that they only have a few big wins. Their non-conference schedule was incredibly weak, and the Pac-12 only had five total tournament teams, so they didn't get a ton of opportunities for big wins. The Buffaloes’ biggest win (over Arizona) also comes with a caveat, because it was a 2-point victory that came when Arizona was without its best player. The Wildcats also dropped a few additional games to non-tournament teams while they were without their best player. 

Stylistically, Colorado is a physical, defensive team. The Buffaloes rank 45th in points surrendered per 100 possessions, and rank 11th in the country in steal rate. Their biggest weakness is their three-point shooting (which ranks 195th), but their two-point shooting percentage ranks 96th and their points per 100 possessions ranks 91st, so their offense isn't quite the weakness that Illinois State and Creighton's defenses are. 

Rutgers, Northwestern, and UCF are all comparable teams that Iowa has played. In terms of physicality, Colorado will be similar to Rutgers, though Rutgers was a much better offensive rebounding team this year. We all know the Northwestern defense caused Iowa plenty of turnover issues, and Colorado was actually better than Northwestern in the steal rate category, so that will be something to monitor. UCF is the closest comparable to Colorado in that both are 7-seeds, though UCF's defense was better than Colorado at limiting scoring (albeit in a weaker conference). 

If Iowa plays Colorado, this will be another game where dictating the style of play will be important. Colorado wants this game to be low-scoring. If Iowa can force them to shoot threes, hits the glass hard, and pushes in transition, it should be advantage: Iowa. If Colorado is able to slow the game and continuously hit Clark and Czinano without drawing too many fouls (as several teams have done this year), the game could be tight to the very end like Iowa's games against Northwestern, Rutgers, and UCF. 

Thoughts

Overall, I think Iowa’s tournament draw went about as well as it could have for the first weekend. If Iowa doesn’t beat Illinois State, the Hawkeyes only have itself to blame. I fully expect the Redbirds to give Iowa everything they have. But Iowa is clearly the more talented team. If the Hawks play anywhere close to the way they did to end the season, they should win comfortably.

The Colorado/Creighton game will be tougher. Colorado isn’t a great stylistic matchup for Iowa, and Creighton could always get hot and force Iowa into a shootout. But anyone Iowa could’ve played in the second round would’ve been a challenge. At least with this draw, none of the teams Iowa might play are particularly good at offensive rebounding. If the Hawkeyes play the way they're capable of playing, they should beat either team. And hopefully another sold out crowd will be there to aid the Hawks in that effort.

I won’t do a full preview of Iowa’s potential Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight opponents yet, but in general, I was very pleased that Iowa State ended up as Iowa’s 3-seed. The reality is, Iowa was either going to be a 3-seed or the lowest 2-seed. That means Iowa’s Sweet Sixteen opponent (if the favorites all win) would’ve been one of UConn, Baylor, Texas, LSU, or Iowa State. Baylor, Texas, and LSU are all very good defensive teams with more talent than any defensive-focused team Iowa has played this year. UConn is arguably the most talented team in the country, and that talent is all finally starting to get healthy. Iowa State was easily Iowa’s best matchup of that group.

Iowa State did beat Iowa 77-70 earlier in the season, but much has changed since that game. First, a potential Sweet 16 matchup wouldn’t be played in Ames like the first game. Second, in that first matchup, Iowa was just a week removed from its Covid pause that clearly impacted the team’s sharpness. And third, the Iowa team of the last month is player better than the Iowa team that was playing earlier in the season.

At worst Iowa-Iowa State at a neutral site is a 50/50 game, and I can make a pretty good argument that Iowa should be the favorite.

Iowa’s potential Elite Eight opponent looks like a different story. South Carolina has been the top-ranked team all season, and is a difficult stylistic matchup for Iowa. But the Gamecocks have also been beaten by 6-seed Kentucky and a Missouri team that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. They aren’t unbeatable. And when you have Caitlin Clark on your side, you have a puncher’s chance in basically any game. Let the madness begin.

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