Leistikow's 5 takeaways ahead of Iowa-Auburn NCAA Tournament matchup

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. − One of the biggest talking points of Wednesday’s media sessions at the NCAA Tournament was the home-court advantages for South top seed Alabama and Midwest ninth seed Auburn.

The Auburn situation was especially in the spotlight, considering a lower-seeded team is expected to have a de facto home game against eighth-seeded Iowa at 5:50 p.m. CT Thursday (TNT) ... and possibly against top-seeded Houston (if those teams advance) on Saturday.

One of the amusing rivalry topics here has been whether Alabama fans (who watch their team play earlier Thursday against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) will sell their evening-session tickets to Auburn fans … or stick around to root against the Tigers.

More:Sign up here for Chad Leistikow's Iowa Hawkeyes text-message group

“I would imagine they are going to find a way to get tickets,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl confidently said. “I know it's been really difficult. My phone has rung off the hook. And I have had to say no to a lot of friends and a lot of people who wanted to get tickets, because they are just hard to come by."

Iowa's Filip Rebraca dunks during an open practice session Wednesday at Legacy Arena in Birmingham. The Hawkeyes are anticipating a road atmosphere here on Thursday.

Alabama fans have known they’d probably play here for a while; Auburn’s selection to Birmingham was more of a surprise. The dynamic would have been similar in Des Moines with Iowa fans scrambling to buy tickets from Kansas fans, for instance.

The Hawkeyes’ road-game shooting struggles are well-documented, so wouldn’t a road-style game be a disadvantage? Iowa players had pretty good responses to the potential home edge for Auburn, whose campus is two hours away.

“We play in tough road environments all year. I’m not super impressed about it, not super concerned,” Iowa junior Patrick McCaffery said. “Auburn had no control where they went. We would have been really excited if it was in Des Moines. Same thing. They had no control over it. It is what it is. We’re excited for the opportunity to play and do what we can to make a run here.”

Oddsmakers have Auburn (20-12) as a 1-point favorite over Iowa (19-13).

“They’re going to have a lot of fans there," said Kris Murray, who was named a third-team AP All-American on Wednesday. "But we’re excited they put us in the NCAA Tournament and gave us a place to play."

Speaking of the Hawkeyes’ 3-point shooting …

As mentioned, Iowa’s 28.2% 3-point accuracy on the road (vs. 38.6% at home) remains a lingering issue. And given Iowa’s struggles in three games with a Wilson basketball − the same one used in the NCAA Tournament − additional preparations have been taken.

With the Wilsons, Iowa has shot 3-for-24 from 3 at Northwestern, 3-for-28 at Wisconsin and 4-for-17 in an opening loss to Ohio State at the Big Ten Tournament. (That’s a collective 14.5% accuracy. Ouch.)

“(Managers) kind of inflated the balls getting ready for the NCAA Tournament,” Iowa sophomore Payton Sandfort said. “We tried to make it not a big deal, and now it’s second nature shooting it.”

Hawkeye players were clearly getting frustrated with the ball and tight rims during Wednesday’s open practice session but publicly have the proper approach.

“Both teams are using the same ball. It is what it is,” McCaffery said. “I try not to freak out about the ball. We already have enough to worry about.”

Staying on the 3-point topic, how to combat Auburn’s excellent 3-point shooting defense? Keep shooting 3s? Or drive the basketball?

The answers were mixed in the Hawkeye locker room, but basically they’re going to wait to see how Auburn is defending. Iowa expects to see a lot of in-your-face defense on the perimeter.

“They put a lot of pressure on the ball. We can try to take advantage of that,” junior guard Tony Perkins said. “They most definitely challenge a lot of shots, so we can try to pump fake and get to the line, get some quick free throws."

Added senior Connor McCaffery: “I feel like we’ve got to stay with our game. We need to shoot open ones. You don’t want to pass up on open 3s just because they’re a good 3-point shooting defense. There have been games we’ve watched on (Auburn) film where (opponents) just haven’t made them.”

No question, the 3-point percentages will be in the spotlight Thursday on both sides. At 31.4%, Auburn is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country (No. 314 nationally).

Special matchup for Bruce Pearl, Matt Gatens

Pearl is a bundle of energy. And he’s beloved at Auburn, which gave him a “lifetime” contract as its men’s basketball coach last January. At nearly $5.5 million a year, he is college basketball’s fifth-highest paid coach.

Yet he fondly recalled his six years as an Iowa assistant in great detail on Wednesday. Those were the glory years of Hawkeye hoops, the mid- to late-1980s. The Elite Eight run in 1987 was brought up, but Pearl also reflected on other coaching icons at Iowa in that time – Hayden Fry, Barry Alvarez (“he was just a linebacker coach” then, Pearl noted) and C. Vivian Stringer.

“I hope that in some ways the Iowa fan base would look at me as I’ve moved on in my career in different places and say, ‘Hey, he was one of us,’” Pearl said. “… We had a great run.”

One of the topics Pearl addressed was Matt Gatens, Iowa’s first-year assistant coach. Gatens worked for two seasons under Pearl, helping with travel, scouting and filming practices. He parlayed that role into a four-year full-time gig at Drake, and now Gatens is coaching where he played and grew up in Iowa City.

“The key was to work with me for a little while, and I managed not to run him out of the business,” Pearl said. “Iowa is where he belongs.”

Pearl joked that he’s changed the names of his out-of-bounds plays with Gatens on the opposing sideline. Gatens had a chuckle about that.

But it's true, Gatens has a big role in Thursday's outcome. He was assigned the Auburn scouting report by head coach Fran McCaffery. If Iowa wins, Sherman Dillard has the Houston scout. Understandably, Gatens is in the spotlight on multiple levels.

"They want to force turnovers," Gatens said. "So you've got to take care of the ball, rebound the ball and run good offense. We'll be ready.

“I’d rather be behind the scenes and help the guys out. But it’s a unique connection. Pretty special to get to go against your former team and boss.”

Joe Toussaint reunited with Iowa ex-teammates

After the NCAA Tournament brackets were released on Sunday night, Connor McCaffery and his former Hawkeye teammate, Joe Toussaint, connected immediately − picking each other's brains on their respective first-round opponents.

Toussaint and ninth-seeded West Virginia face eighth-seeded Maryland here in a South Region game Thursday morning. The Hawkeyes trounced Maryland, 81-67, on Jan. 15. Likewise, McCaffery sought out information on Auburn − an opponent West Virginia defeated, 80-77, on Jan. 28.

“Connor, he literally told me everything about Maryland,” Toussaint said. “And I told him about Auburn.”

How does Auburn play?

“Very gritty. Athletic. Very good defensively,” Toussaint said. “Their bigs are very good. Their guards are crafty.”

Leistikow:It's time to unleash Payton Sandfort in the NCAA Tournament

Toussaint’s departure late last March came as a surprise to Iowa fans and even Fran McCaffery. He had been benched mid-season in favor of Perkins in the starting lineup, and his role had diminished. A 41-game starter over three years at Iowa – including 20 as a true freshman – he wanted a bigger role in a “change of scenery,” as he described it.

Toussaint has been coming off the bench for West Virginia. He averages 9.5 points and 2.7 assists in 21.6 minutes a game. He averaged 4.3 points, 3.2 assists and 17.1 minutes in his junior year at Iowa. Toussaint said he still tunes in to the Hawkeyes’ games and stays in touch regularly with his ex-teammates, particularly good friend Patrick McCaffery.

“I wanted to expand my role. It’s not that I had a big problem with my role at Iowa, I just knew what I could do,” Toussaint said. “I wanted to show the world what I could do, and (coach Bob Huggins) gave me a chance to do that here.

“There’s no bad blood between me and Iowa or anyone in that state."

Dasonte Bowen trying to stay positive

One of the benefits of open locker rooms at the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019 is getting a chance to talk to players who seldom play. That would be the case for Dasonte Bowen, a freshman point guard from the Boston area who began the season in a competition with Ahron Ulis for the starting role but has gone from rotational bench player to just bench player.

Bowen scored 12 points against Duke on Dec. 6. But he has played only 22 minutes with one basket since Jan. 15 as Fran McCaffery has tightened his core rotation to seven players plus spot use for eighth man Josh Dix.

Bowen said he is looking forward to next season, giving no hints that he was a disgruntled transfer prospect. He’ll likely have a fresh start then after several key veteran players depart.

“I’m still doing the same thing they recruited me to do,” Bowen said. “Staying aggressive and playing defense, getting shots for myself and others. I’m just staying sharp and waiting for my number to get called.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.