Four things to know and watch when Iowa basketball plays Auburn in NCAA Tournament
For the third straight season the Iowa men's basketball team's punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. There are fewer expectations for the 8-seeded Hawkeyes this season compared to the previous two years (5-seed in 2022, 2-seed in 2021) but there's a pathway to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City and it begins on Thursday night in Birmingham against 9-seed Auburn (5:50 pm CT on TNT).
Iowa and Auburn found themselves in similar positions this season. Both teams lost first round NBA Draft picks from the previous seasons: Iowa's Keegan Murray was the No. 4 pick in the 2022 draft while Auburn lost the No. 3 pick Jabari Smith and No. 22 pick Walker Kessler. As a result, both teams’ wins totals took a step back. Iowa holds a 19-13 record as opposed to its 26-9 record entering last year's Tournament while Auburn is 20-12 this year after a pre-tournament 27-5 record last year.
Thursday is an opportunity for both teams to jumpstart some new momentum in the postseason. Iowa lost its final two games entering the tournament while Auburn lost nine of its final 13 games down the stretch. For the oddsmakers this game is nearly too close to call with Auburn fluctuating between a one-point favorite and an outright pick em.
Here are four things to know and watch about Iowa's opponent when Thursday's game tips off:
Auburn basketball's depth and athleticism
Whereas Iowa coach Fran McCaffery shortened the playing rotation this season, using mainly seven players, Auburn's the opposite. The Tigers have 11 players who have appeared in at least 23 games and have 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. The result is platoon lineups that can keep bodies fresh against Iowa's front line players.
Auburn's starting lineup consists of two guards: Wendell Green Jr and Zep Jasper, swingman Allen Flanigen and forwards Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome. Within this unit, Broome is the primary option as Auburn's top post player followed by Green who is a strong penetrator with the ball in his hands. Jasper is known as one of the better on-ball defenders in the SEC but isn't a threat on offense. The potential X-factor for the Tigers is Flanigan, who was an All-SEC performer two years ago but a torn ACL has limited him since. He's picked up stride as of late with 48 points over the last three games.
The Tigers bench doesn't have many scoring options off the bench outside of guard KD Johnson but have athletic players capable of affecting the game in other ways. Center Dylan Caldwell is a veteran who is an effective rebounder, shot blocker and finisher around the rim. Small forward Chris Moore is a tough defender and dependable rebounder and true freshman guard Tre Donaldson had an offer to play football at Auburn as well, his physicality is seen defensively as as a drive-and-kick player on offense.
It's also a veteran team, seven of Auburn's top 10 players are upperclassmen.
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Offensively, Auburn's had its struggles this season
This year's Auburn team isn't as dynamic offensively as last year's squad that rose to No. 1 in the country. The Tigers’ points per game numbers are down nearly seven points from last season and rank just inside the top half of the SEC at 72.7 points per game. Where the team struggles most is shooting the ball. Auburn's 31% from 3-point range, which is 12th in the conference and 70% from the free throw line which is tenth. Nationally, the Tigers rank 48th nationally in offensive efficiency (KenPom) and 73rd in scoring rate.
The catalyst behind Auburn's late season slide was the inability to sustain offense. The Tigers struggled to score in five of its nine losses down the stretch including a dreadful 43-point outing against Tennessee.
Despite not having great shooting, Auburn's offense will be a test for Iowa's defense. The Hawkeyes have struggled this season with consistency in assignments. Auburn's flex offense, which is predicated on passing, screening, ball movement and finding open cutters, will challenge Iowa's ability to stay with its man in man-to-man defense.
Another facet of Auburn's offense is dribble-drive penetration by guards that set up scoring opportunities for themselves or post players. Auburn's among one of the best teams in the field in paint points. If its guards can win the matchup, drive into Iowa's defense and potentially get them into foul trouble, it could be a problem.
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Auburn basketball's calling card is on the defensive side
Perhaps the most interesting matchup within the game is Auburn's stingy defense against Iowa's high-powered offense. The Tigers allow 67 points per game, good enough for third in the SEC and rank fifth nationally in 3-point defense (28%).
The heart of the defense is in the interior with Broome as the anchor. He leads the team with 2.3 blocks per game. Auburn as a team averages over five blocks per game, which is among the best in the SEC. They utilize their athleticism and speed to run opposing players off the perimeter and force them inside where its front court players can affect shots. Bruce Pearl's team mostly operates in man defense but has the capability to switch to a zone should Iowa's offense call for a switch.
Iowa's motion offense must execute better in the half court than it did in its opening Big Ten Tournament game against Ohio State when the ball movement was stagnant and too many points were scored in isolation situations. Thursday will be a big test for top options Kris Murray and Filip Rebraca as Auburn has several defenders to throw at each but there is opportunity for Iowa's guards to create offense.
Comparatively to Iowa's big backcourt of Ahron Ulis (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) and Tony Perkins (6-4, 205 pounds), Auburn's guards of Green (5-11, 175) and Jasper (6-1, 190) are undersized which is a matchup the Hawkeyes can exploit. Perkins is an aggressive driver and can use his size advantage to attack the basket, the same can be said for Ulis.
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Rebounding will be a statistic to watch
Iowa's improved rebounding has been an underrated storyline of this season. The Hawkeyes have become one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the Big Ten and that will be critical in Thursday's matchup against a very good Auburn defense. A consistent Fran McCaffery philosophy this year is that if Iowa's not making shots (which they haven't away from home this year), they need to get them back for second chance points.
Comparatively, Auburn's an average rebounding team with a +1 margin on the season but the Tigers particularly struggle with allowing offensive rebounds. They rank 318th nationally (KenPom) in offensive rebound rate allowed (32%). The aforementioned point about Auburn's undersized guards could play a factor in rebounding as well, Perkins and Payton Sandfort are very willing rebounders for the Hawkeyes.