Xavier's early-season quest to avoid true road games will continue when the Muskies take on the Iowa Hawkeyes on Thanksgiving Day in the Battle 4 Atlantis down in the Bahamas. Both teams will be coming off of guarantee games with D1 non-counter Abilene Christian, so there will be some basis for comparison afoot before the game. The eagle-eyed among you will likely have noticed that there is even more of a difference between Iowa and the Bahamas than there is between Cincinnati and the aforementioned island nation. Scoffers will chalk this one up as another non-road contest for the boys from X, but two teams facing off in a gym that neither calls home sounds an awful lot like what you would want to be prepared for when March rolls around.
As the team sitting 23rd in the Pomeroy rankings, Iowa had the dubious honor last season of being the best team - at least according to KenPom - to not make the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has been at the helm for the Hawkeyes for three seasons and has seen the team's record improve in each campaign. McCaffery's teams have been generally solid on the offensive end, and Iowa has been no exception. One thing the Hawkeyes haven't been good at has been actually shooting the basketball; other than an EFG% sneaking above 50% in 2011-2012, they have been a below average shooting team under McCaffery. They do excel at just about everything else, though, ranking in the top 100 in TO%, OR%, assist rate, and free throw rate last year.
Defensively, playing Iowa has been somewhere between annoying and downright difficult. They were mediocre two years ago, but have been in the top 53 in 2 of McCaffery's 3 years as a Hawkeye. Their defense was especially smothering last season, rating 17th in the nation in EFG%, 52 in 2P%, 11th in 3P%, 41st in block%, and 66th in free throw rate. Grabbing your own miss wasn't a viable strategy, either, as the Hawkeyes were better than average on the defensive glass. They don't force turnovers very well, but other than that, Iowa is a very good defensive team, posting the 22nd best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation.
There was one. Six-foot-five wing Eric May was an efficient scorer - ORtg of 118, but his usage rate of 12.9% speaks to how much of a part of the team's game plan he was. His 5.2/3.7/1.8 game line on .452/.395/.737 is certainly respectable, but his absence is hardly a pivotal loss for Iowa. Patrick Ingram also departed the program, having played 116 minutes and scored 17 points in the 2012-2013 season. The squad Iowa brings back this season will be largely comprised of the same players they went to battle with last year.
I hope you brought a lunch, because we could be in this particular section for a while.
On the perimeter, the obvious standout of the squad is rising senior Roy Devyn Marble. The 6'6", 194-pound wing was well out in front of his teammates in usage rate and shot rate and second on the squad in assist rate. He spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands, is what I'm saying. His 15.0/4.0/3.0 game line came on .409/.327/.810 shooting, so he is a little bit of a volume scorer. He also led the team in steals, for what that's worth.
Rising sophomore Mike Gesell also had the ball a good deal, placing third on the team with an assist rate of 22.5%. He went for 8.7/2.6/2.6 despite playing only 25 minutes per game. He shot .403/.317/.794, which isn't great, but he also led the team in steals per game. The other returning guard is Anthony Clemmons, who stands 6'1" and was good for 4.3/1.6/2.8 per game as a freshman last year. His assist rate of 32.8% was the team's best and 63rd in the nation.
Closer to the tin is rising junior Aaron White. The 6'8", 218-pound forward isn't strictly a post player - he lifted 66 times from deep last year - but his shooting line of .468/.227/.748 seems to indicate that his best work is done inside the arc. He was the team's second-leading scorer and leading rebounder on his way to 12.8/6.2/1.3 averages last year, adding 1.1 steals per game for good measure. Rising senior Melsahn Basabe in a 6'7", 221-pound forward was second on the team in OReb% and DReb% with respective numbers of 10.2% and 19.7% in those categories. He was also a prolific shot blocker, turning away 6.8% of opponents' two-point attempts when he was on the floor. Despite averaging only 18.5 minutes per game, he put up a game line of 6.8/5.1/0.5 and 1.2 blocks per.
Forwards Zach McCabe (6'7", 235-pound rising senior) and Josh Oglesby (6'5", 202-pound rising junior) were each separate kinds of ineffective en route to averaging 10.2/5.1/2.3 in 31.8 minutes per game between them. McCabe turned the ball over 1.2 times per game and shot .374/.320/.759 from the floor, launching 97 threes despite hitting only 31 of them. Oglesby only turned it over half a time per game, but he shot an alarming .274/.269/.792, leading the team with 156 attempts from behind the arc, or more than one for every four minutes he spent on the floor. Just to reiterate, he barely made a quarter of them.
Finally, Iowa features not one but two players listed on the roster as true centers. Adam Woodbury is a 7'1", 235-pound rising sophomore who posted a 4.9/4.8/0.6 game line on .488/.000/.510 shooting while having the refreshing good sense to attempt zero three-pointers. His OReb% of 12% and DReb% of 19.7% both led the team. Further down the ol' depth chart is 6'10", 229-pound rising junior Gabriel Olaseni, who was efficient in limited action last year, blocked a shot a game despite averaging just over 10 minutes, and is in line to receive a free education for his troubles.
On a team that returned everyone accept the ball boy (who left for Texas Pan American as an immediately eligible graduate transfer), you would expect little in the way of fresh talent. Incoming freshman Peter Jok is a 6'6", 200-pound guard hailing from Sudan who brings with him and entire class's worth of offensive talent. Depending on who you listen to, he can play anywhere from two to four positions on the offensive end. What everyone agrees on is that he has a polished game, flashing the ability to drive, nail long jumpers out to a step or two beyond the arc, and score from the post when faced with a smaller defender. Defense is a weakness for him at this point, and - like almost all incoming freshmen - he needs to gain strength.
Joining Jok in a first year of Hawkeye eligibility is 6'8", 200-pound forward Jared Uthoff. If the name sounds familiar, you'll likely recall that Uthoff was the subject of some media coverage when Bo Ryan gave him a laundry list of restrictions upon his transfer out of Wisconsin after a redshirt season. Ryan eventually gave Uthoff a little slack, and he ended up at Iowa. He is a classic stretch four, which has been the bane of Xavier's defensive efforts in recent years. He put up 26 and 11 on his way to a Mr. Basketball award as a senior in high school and he figures to be challenging for a starting spot from day one in Iowa.
Experience playing together can take a team with marginal talent and propel it to something that is more than the sum of its parts. Iowa has that experience, but they also have an almost elite talent level. They played games with single-digit margins of defeat against Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana again, and Michigan State again last year. A few bounces here and there could have turned eight tough losses into a mountain of signature wins and an easy at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. That team lost little in the way of on-court production and has since picked up two talented players and a year of tough lessons in the Big Ten. I'll be very surprised if Iowa is sweating it out on Selection Sunday this March.