Could Iowa Be This Year's Cinderella Team?
When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, there is only one thing we know for sure: anything is possible. For the most part, the number one seeds are ranked number one for a reason but, as history has told us, it's extremely unlikely for all four number one seeds to advance to the Final Four. In fact, 2008 was the only year where we saw all four number ones play in the Final Four, and those four teams (Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Memphis) were all incredibly dominating teams led by eventual NBA All-Stars.
Although this year’s bracket includes an undefeated team and the first ever squad to go 18-0 in the SEC, there's not a single team in the Big Dance that is nearly as dominant as any of the Final Four from 2008. Additionally, this year’s field is as deep as we have seen in recent memory, including the defending champions, who return last year’s tournament MVP, as a four seed. Considering the depth and that there are no real dominant teams, this year's NCAA Tourney has the potential for upsets galore.
With that said, there are a number of teams who are in position to make Cinderella-type runs to the Final Four, similar to what we saw from George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. The double-digit seeded team that could be in the best position to make a deep tournament run this year? The Iowa Hawkeyes. Here are a few reasons why we could see the Hawkeyes playing in the second or even third weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa started the year scalding hot, winning 15 of their first 18 games and climbing to as high as 10th overall in the polls. During that run, they knocked off three teams that made the NCAA Tournament: Xavier, Nebraska and Ohio State, with their only three losses over that span coming to two two-seeds and a three-seed in the Tournament: Villanova, Wisconsin and Iowa State. Iowa is currently 19th in our College Basketball nERD rankings, and has the right combination of talent and veteran leadership to make a deep tournament run.
What truly makes them a scary team to play is how explosive they are on offense. Led by senior guard Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa scores 82 points per game, good for the 10th highest average in the country. Although Marble is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, Iowa is an incredibly balanced team with five players averaging at least 7.5 points per game. Their scoring depth often creates mismatches and allows the Hawkeyes to play within the flow of the game rather than forcing the ball to one or two players. This makes them very tough to match up with in the halfcourt.
Another aspect of the Hawkeye’s offense that sets them apart is their willingness to share the basketball. They currently rank 11th in the country in assists per game at 16.2, and have six players averaging at least one assist per game. Marble averages 3.5 assists per contest to go along with his 17.3 points, but it's sophomore guard Mike Gesell who leads the team in assists at 3.9 per game. The Hawkeyes are strong on the boards as well, ranking seventh in the nation on the offensive glass.
They're built for a deep tournament run because of their offensive efficiency. The Hawkeyes are full of high efficiency scorers, including Aaron White, who is one of the most effective scorers in the country. White, who is shooting 59.2% from the field and 80.6% from the charity stripe, is a huge reason why Iowa ranks 66th in the nation in shooting percentage and 52nd in the country in free throw percentage.
High Highs and Low Lows
As good their offense is, Iowa earned their 11 seed by struggling down the stretch this season. The Hawkeyes didn't play well during conference play, finishing 9-9 in the Big Ten and losing six of their last seven games, four of which were to teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament. During that stretch, Iowa struggled on offense, especially in their 67-62 loss to a bad Northwestern squad. Marble only scored eight points in that contest.
Although they lost to a few teams with ugly resumes late in the season, most of the Hawkeyes' blemishes this year were close losses that came at the hands of tournament-bound teams. Iowa’s resume features overtime losses to Michigan St. and Villanova, a three-point loss to in-state rival Iowa State, a close loss at Michigan and a pair of squeakers to Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes were able to pick up a few big wins along the way as well, including a 10-point victory at then third-ranked Ohio State, and an 18-point stomping against Michigan.
With Michigan’s Fab Five, Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team and the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats as exceptions, the vast majority of teams that reach the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament have some veteran leadership to lean on when the going gets tough, and this Iowa Hawkeyes team is no different. As I mentioned earlier, the team is led by senior guard and Big Ten scoring leader Roy Devyn Marble. Marble is a three-year starter who has the ability to take over any game. Iowa’s starting lineup also features senior forward Melsahn Basabe, junior forward Aaron White and a pair of sophomores in Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell.
Although it's important to point out that this Hawkeyes team doesn't have a single player who has played in the NCAA Tournament, they do return 12 players who were on last year’s team, one that made it all the way to the NIT finals. This Hawkeyes team is as experienced as just about any other squad in the country (other than maybe the tournament’s number one overall seed, Florida, who has four senior starters), and they have a true senior leader in Marble.
The Wild, Wild Midwest
I know many people will be scared to pick Iowa to make a deep run in this tournament due to the fact that they have to play an extra gam - especially against a similarly dangerous Tennessee squad - but a six-game run to the Final Four is not unprecedented. In fact, VCU accomplished that feat as an 11-seed just two seasons ago.
Additionally, the fact the Iowa ended up in an open Midwest region should help tremendously. A potential second-round matchup with an over-seeded UMass team is very winnable, and if they are able to get passed a tough matchup with Duke in the third round, Iowa would find themselves in a matchup with a Michigan team who they have already knocked off once this season. If they were to win a few games and gain back some of their confidence and swagger, they could be as dangerous as any team in this tournament.