COLUMBUS, Ohio — I'm not sure why this came to mind today, but it did. When I was interviewing James Ferentz last month after he won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, we talked about his older brother’s work as the Iowa football offensive coordinator.
James made a joke that we shouldn’t let Brian fool us — that calling plays wasn’t really that difficult. Either you run, or you pass.
Along those lines, basketball can be broken down pretty simply, too.
Score more points than the other team, and you win.
And to increase your chances of doing so, control of the basketball as much as you can.
As the Iowa Hawkeyes get ready for their first-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Cincinnati, victory is within reach. While that may seem like a stretch for a team that’s lost five of six games entering the Big Dance, all it really takes is a 40-minute session of checking off simple boxes.
If the 10th-seeded Hawkeyes (3½-point underdogs) do these four things, they’ll beat No. 7 seed Cincinnati in Friday’s 11:15 a.m. CT game at Nationwide Arena and advance to face the Tennessee-Colgate winner in the round of 32.
No. 1: Win the battle of the boards.
When I asked Iowa center Luka Garza about the keys to victory, here was the first thing he said: “Rebounding.”
Someone’s taught him well. Cincinnati is aggressive on the glass. It rebounds its own misses 37.1 percent of the time — that ranks fourth in the country. Iowa has the size to combat the Bearcats, with Garza (6-foot-11, 245 pounds), Tyler Cook (6-9, 250) and Ryan Kriener (6-9, 255) in the rotation. It just needs the willingness and know-how.
“They box out before the shot even goes up,” Kriener explained. “They know their guy is going to shoot it. They’re boxing out before the shot even goes up. You’ve got to feel that and swim around them early.”
How important is this stat? When Cincinnati wins the rebounding battle, its record is 23-2. When it doesn’t, it’s 5-4.
Bearcats coach Mick Cronin will send four guys to the offensive glass and only his point guard will retreat. That will be perhaps the game’s biggest tipping point. Iowa can either turn defensive rebounds into transition opportunities; or give up offensive rebounds for two Cincinnati points at a time.
"That’s how they win," Garza said. "They really grind you down, if you play good defense and they get a tip-in, it’s a momentum-shifter for them."
No. 2: Commit no more than 9 turnovers.
Valuing the basketball is absolutely critical in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s especially true against teams that run a slow pace like Cincinnati. (The Bearcats milk an average of 19.2 seconds per possession; only 18 of 353 Division I teams are slower.)
“Playing smooth, playing disciplined offensively is really going to be huge for us,” said Cook, who knows he’s talking about himself, too – he leads the Hawkeyes in turnovers. “They play a different style of defense, kind of like I guess you’d say Illinois, in the fact that they play their own style of basketball.”
Reckless passing is the quickest way for Iowa to dig an early hole it can’t escape.
Why nine turnovers? Iowa has committed nine or fewer only once during a 10-game stretch in which we’d all agree it hasn’t played great basketball. That one game? Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament opener against … Illinois, another team that plays aggressive defense. And that was Iowa’s best game in more than a month, an 83-62 win.
No. 3: Prevent a surprise Cincinnati star from emerging.
Cincinnati has one great player in Jarron Cumberland. The 6-foot-5 guard dominated the American Athletic Conference tournament and leads the Bearcats in scoring at 18.8 points per game. He’s scored at least 26 points in three of their last six games.
He deserves much defensive attention — but not at the expense of allowing someone else to go wild.
“They have a lot of X-factor guys. A lot of guys who can impact the game,” Iowa senior forward Nicholas Baer said. “Obviously, Cumberland’s a really tough player. He’s someone we’ve got to lock into. It’s also really important that we don’t let some of these other guys get hot as well.”
Iowa’s four-game losing streak to end the regular season was started here in Columbus by little-used freshman Justin Ahrens getting free for 29 points in a 90-70 Ohio State win. The next game, Ron Harper Jr. went from below-average 3-point shooter to game-wrecker as he scored 27 points in Rutgers’ 86-72 stunner in Iowa City.
Baer said the goal every game is for Iowa’s defense to get three consecutive stops five different times throughout that game. That’s something to watch Friday. If Iowa can commit to strong defense, it can overcome the likely lulls it’ll face from time to time on offense.
No. 4: Make 10 3-pointers.
This might be the most important factor Friday. The Bearcats have been vulnerable against the 3. In their six losses, they're permitting opponents to can 54 of 127 3-point attempts — 42.5 percent. The Hawkeyes would pay a fine ransom for a good 3-point shooting night; even counting the 12-for-23 outing against Illinois, they’re only hitting 30.6 percent over their last eight games from 3 — compared with 38 percent before that.
Iowa is 10-2 when it makes at least 10 3-pointers. Hence, the benchmark of 10.
“If we get open looks," Baer said, "we’re confident we’ll knock them down."
He’s a good 3-point shooter. So is Isaiah Moss. So is Joe Wieskamp. Jordan Bohannon needs three 3s to break the career school record of Jeff Horner.
This is a Hawkeye team that can shoot; it just needs to do it on the biggest stage.
“J-Bo, last practice, I think he hit five contested 3s in a row. Moss was hitting, Joe was hitting, Baer was hitting,” Kriener said. “It’s just a good sign when it’s not just one guy.”
Rebound. Protect. Defense. Make shots.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.