While I will always associate the initial Thursday and Friday games of the NCAA tournament with the term “first round,” the NCAA tournament’s first round officially will be played tonight and tomorrow in the form of the play-in games. On Wednesday night, a Big Ten representative will look to advance from Dayton, as Iowa takes on Tennessee in a battle to become the Midwest Region’s 11-seed.
Before we look at the specifics of that matchup, I’d like to rant for a moment about Iowa’s selection to the First Four. I’d argue that, if any Big Ten team were going to be relegated to a play-in game, it should have been Nebraska. Let me explain.
First, let’s compare Iowa and Nebraska when it comes to nonconference resume. That’s a clear Iowa advantage, as the Hawkeyes have a win over a tournament team (Xavier) and no bad losses (Villanova and at Iowa State). The Huskers had no nonconference wins over tournament teams, and they had a bad loss (UAB).
So, for Nebraska to be ahead of Iowa in the pecking order, the Huskers had better have a much more impressive conference performance. At first glance, that seems like a slam dunk, as Nebraska finished 11-7 compared to Iowa’s 9-9 mark. The problem is that these records were not compiled against the same schedule.
If we look only at the contests that were common between the two teams’ schedules (both by opponent and venue), we have 14 games that both Nebraska and Iowa had to face. Nebraska went 9-5 in those games; Iowa went 8-6. That’s an advantage for Nebraska.
In the only head-to-head matchup, Iowa got the win at home. That doesn’t quite nullify Nebraska’s one game edge in common games, but it mitigates that advantage a bit.
Here are the games that Nebraska played that Iowa did not:
Penn State (W)
at Purdue (L)
Here are the games that Iowa played that Nebraska did not:
at Minnesota (L)
at Wisconsin (L)
Michigan State (L)
I’d argue that nearly all of Nebraska’s conference advantage was due to the softer schedule.
So, to recap:
1) Iowa had a clearly superior nonconference resume.
2) Nebraska had a better conference record, but it was mostly due to a weaker schedule.
Personally, I take those two data points and conclude that Iowa deserves to be ahead of Nebraska in the pecking order. The selection committee did the opposite. I was shocked to see the Hawkeyes placed in a play-in game, and it’s even worse that it’s against a very good Tennessee squad.
Of course, if Iowa had just played a little better down the stretch, it wouldn’t be in this predicament. Rant over.
As far as the challenge at hand, the Hawkeyes figure to have their hands full with Tennessee. The Volunteers are experienced and physical, with offensive and defensive rebounding rates that both rank among the nation’s top 20. Big men Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon do most of this work on their own, and each boasts a hefty 6-foot-8, 260 pound frame.
On the offensive end, all those second chances are crucial for Tennessee, as the Volunteers aren’t a great shooting team, though Iowa would be wise to keep an eye on senior wing Jordan McRae. McRae is the player that makes Tennessee’s offense go, as he takes a shot diet north of 30 percent and also dishes a fair number of assists. He is the Tennessee version of Roy Devyn Marble.
This will be an interesting matchup, in that both teams have big guards. Marble has often had a size advantage this season, but that won’t be the case against Tennessee. The Volunteers use all that length to good effect on defense, where they have held opponents to under 44 percent shooting on twos.
In many ways, it will be the irresistible force vs. the immovable object when Iowa has the basketball – the Hawkeyes use offensive rebounds, free throws, and lots of twos to fuel their outstanding offense. Tennessee has been good at limiting all of those things this season.
It is the defensive end where Iowa has had trouble, and I feel the Volunteers will be able to score quite efficiently in this one. For all of Iowa’s size, it is not a great defensive rebounding team, and I think Tennessee’s burly frontline will be able to generate enough second chances to make an impact.
KenPom sees this as a narrow 75-73 win for Tennessee, and I have to concur. I’ll take Tennessee by six.