Coached by Fran McCaffery, in his third year after a strong run at Siena, the Iowa Hawkeyes (25-12) missed the NCAA tournament because they got hot too late. That hot streak (11-3 in the last 14 games) instead carried them into the NIT Championship game against Baylor (22-14), tipping at 8 tonight on ESPN.
Iowa's problem was that it didn't have enough quality wins in the Big 10 to get into the big tournament. It also had bad losses to Virginia Tech and at Nebraska. One of the Hawkeyes' bizarre wins came in the second meeting with arch-rival Minnesota, Feb. 17 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They trailed 21-6 before storming back to win 72-51.
Junior guard/forward Devyn Marble is a legacy player. His father Roy was an All-Big 10 performer in the late 1980s for then-coach Dr. Tom Davis. Marble averages better than 15 points and is 81 percent at the free throw line. Sophomore forward Aaron White is averaging 10 points and eight rebounds in this NIT run. Iowa is a very good rebounding team, ranking 10th in the country (39.4). The Hawkeyes also share the ball well at 15.2 assists per game, 30th in the nation.
Below, we break down Baylor's chances of taking the NIT Championship trophy to Waco.
Iowa's top statistical weakness: The Hawkeyes only shoot 30% from the three-point line, a clip barely good enough to rank inside the top 300. If not for senior guard Eric May's 41% clip, it would be even worse. Nobody else on the team shoots better than 33%.
Baylor's top statistical weakness: Though the Bears and Hawkeyes both average seven steals per game, Baylor ranks 291st in the country, according to Kenpom.com, at forcing turnovers.
Iowa's top statistical strength: The Big 10 is known for solid defense, and Iowa was one of its best. The Hawkeyes rank 17th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions. Iowa's adjusted defensive efficiency is 89.5, one of just 24 teams in the country to post a figure under 90. Baylor ranks 78th with a 95.5 defensive efficiency. Iowa's effective field goal percentage on defense is 43.8, the 13th best ranking in the country. All that to say -- Iowa makes it tough for the opposition to score. Case in point is Iowa's points allowed in the NIT; no team has scored at least 65 points, whereas every Baylor opponent in the NIT scored at least 66.
Baylor's top statistical strength: On the opposite end of Iowa is Baylor, whose top statistics are mostly offensive. Baylor's adjusted offensive efficiency (number of points per 100 possessions) is 113.6, a number good for 20th in the country. The Bears also have Top 50 rankings in 2-point field goal percentage (50.8) and turnover percentage (17.2) and are just outside the Top 50 in effective field goal percentage at 51.4 -- comparatively, Iowa ranks 239th.
Key matchup: Baylor's Pierre Jackson (19.9 ppg; 7.0 apg) vs. Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble (15.2 ppg; 3 apg). The 6-6 Marble has the major size advantage, but Jackson clearly has him on speed. Jackson had one of his worst games of the season against Colorado (12 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, 27 FG%), a team that has a similarly long lineup to Iowa. Jackson can get around bigger guards, but if he has trouble scoring after he passes them by, Baylor's chances significantly drop. Baylor needs another big night from Jackson to win.
Publisher Kevin Lonnquist's prediction: This is really a tough call. Fran McCaffery has the Hawkeyes really playing well. Since the Big 10 was the best conference in college basketball, consider the Hawkeyes lost 7 conference games by 4 points or less. So they were holding their own with the likes of Michigan, Indiana, Michigan St. Wisconsin. However, I love how the Baylor players are talking about wanting to bring home some hardware. That's OK. Talk about it. That's why you're at MSG. They took the right attitude into this tournament. So go win it. It really comes down to Pierre Jackson continuing to put this team on his back and leading. Plus, Baylor has to make sure Devyn Marble does not go off for 25 or more. If he does, Iowa wins. If he doesn't, Baylor wins. Baylor 73, Iowa 71.
Staff writer Jake Shaw's prediction: This almost has the feel of a Big 10-Big 12 football clash. Iowa is the better defensive team; Baylor has the edge offensively. But I say almost; Baylor is a decent defensive team, too, while Iowa isn't so bad offensively. These two teams aren't too far apart, so when trying to make a prediction, two disparities stand out. Unfortunately, both favor Iowa. The Hawkeyes are the deeper team: 38 percent of their minutes go to bench players, compared to 28 percent for Baylor. Secondly, Baylor used to always claim the height advantage, but not so in this game. Baylor's three-guard lineup of Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip and A.J. Walton are all smaller than Iowa's shortest starter (6-5 forward Eric May). Iowa is a solid rebounding team, and that edge could be even greater against Baylor's lineup. Kenpom.com is predicting a 73-70 Iowa win. I agree with the margin of victory, but I expect a lower scoring game. Iowa 66, Baylor 63.