Iowa has size on its side against South Dakota

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa men’s basketball team will be able to literally look down on its opponent Wednesday.

It’s a small South Dakota team that will visit Carver-Hawkeye Arena for an 8 p.m. first-round game in the National Invitation Tournament (ESPN2).

But the top-seeded Hawkeyes (18-14) know they can’t figuratively look down on the Coyotes (22-11).

Cordell Pemsl and Iowa's interior players should have a sizeable advantage Wednesday when they host South Dakota in the first round of the NIT.

“They have a couple of really good post players. Some of them are undersized, but all of them have turnaround jumpers,” Iowa freshman forward Cordell Pemsl said Tuesday. “They’re going to keep us on our toes throughout the game, and they’re all very intelligent players. It’s going to be something different for us to see undersized (opponents) because, in the Big Ten, you’re used to going up against big guys all the time. They’re going to give us their best game.”

South Dakota won the regular-season title in the Summit League —  the same conference that Nebraska-Omaha plays in. And UNO came to Carver-Hawkeye and handed Iowa a 98-89 defeat Dec. 3.

The Coyotes start three guards — none taller than 6-foot-3 — and feature 6-6 Trey Burch-Manning and 6-7 Tyler Flack as interior threats. The Hawkeyes have four post players bigger than Flack, South Dakota’s lone senior.

Those include Pemsl, a 6-8 reserve coming off his first double-double, with 14 points and 11 rebounds in Thursday’s 95-73 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. When paired with freshmen Tyler Cook (6-9) and Ryan Kriener (6-9), plus sophomore Ahmad Wagner (6-7), Iowa should have a sizeable advantage on South Dakota under the basket.

“We’ve got versatile big men that can score,” Wagner said. “It will be different to have a smaller team we’re playing against, but our focus doesn’t change. We’re going to try to go inside and get easy buckets that way.”

Iowa was outscored 46-32 in the paint against the Hoosiers. The Hawkeyes were outrebounded 19-10 in the second half. They were pushed around for the first time in a long time and saw a four-game winning streak and a shot at the NCAA Tournament slip away.

On Wednesday, it figures to be their turn to push back.

“Normally, you want to take every game like it’s your last. You want to play like that. But when it really comes down to it and this is win-or-go-home, you kind of want to come out a little more aggressively,” Pemsl said. “Especially Thursday, when we weren’t the aggressor in that game. We definitely want to come out and prove a point.”

South Dakota supplements its front court with 6-10 sophomore reserve Tyler Hagedorn, who averages 5.1 points and 2.6 rebounds. Flack is the team’s second-leading scorer, at 15.2 points. Both post players are comfortable on the perimeter, even making 29 3-pointers between them.

That will be where the challenge lies for Iowa’s forwards, coach Fran McCaffery said. The Coyotes can put a different kind of pressure on opposing big men, which is why they are one of six teams in the nation to average 25 or more free-throw attempts per game. Iowa has had only three players foul out of a game this season — and none of them post players.

“Pretty much everybody that they play can go off the dribble, can make shots outside,” McCaffery said of the Coyotes. “They can spread the floor.”

The Hawkeyes are 12-point favorites and seem desperate to prove that Thursday’s shockingly poor performance against Indiana was an aberration. The big team from the big conference needs to come to terms with the fact that they’re playing in March’s second-tier tournament. The Hawkeyes also know that if they keep winning, they could get three more home games this spring and then a potential trip to Madison Square Garden for "the other” Final Four. The winner of Wednesday’s game will meet the winner of Fresno State-TCU at a date and time to be determined.

Iowa’s players were practicing for their next game Sunday instead of watching the NCAA pairings be announced. The Hawkeyes were deemed one of the four teams that just missed an at-large berth in that tournament. Coming so close to the ultimate goal stings, Wagner admitted, but he said his team needs to draw motivation from that.

“It kinds of let you know that, 'Hey, you’re a good team.' And not only does it put fire in you, but it gives you confidence, too,” he said.

“I’m a competitor. This team is full of competitors. We want to win. We’re given this great opportunity and we want to be successful.”