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College Basketball

Live Free, Pick Iowa

Keegan Murray exultant during Iowa's victory in the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game.
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

For most humans, college basketball is good for one thing: filling out a bracket in March. But for some of us immersed in the sport all season long—or, anyway, for me—filling out a bracket is torture. College basketball statistics are my livelihood, but I also just like to watch basketball. No bracket is going to enhance the viewing experience, and I’ve often found that it just makes it worse. I find myself rooting for my own financial self-interest instead of just enjoying the chaos and beauty of March Madness. 

Also, about that financial interest part: the deck is stacked against you, here. It’s stacked against everyone, in fact, because the tournament is such a crapshoot that you’re effectively entering a weighted lottery against a few dozen of your friends or coworkers. You will eventually lose this lottery, often in heartbreaking fashion when some plucky underdog knocks off Big State U. This is the part of it I hate the most—the possibility that some iconic buzzer-beater, which should by rights bring great joy, will actually leave me feeling like a dope. And so anytime I can’t resist the social pressure to fill out a bracket, I make sure that bracket aligns with my belief system. 

And my belief system is that high-scoring hoops is more fun than a defensive slugfest. I’m not interested in seeing a team’s pack-line defense strangle opponents into endless shot-clock violations. People who want to see a 42-36 game will get their wish, but I am not one of those people, and that is not what I want.

I want offense-focused, uptempo teams to succeed and plodding defensive-minded teams to fail. I am in luck, in this regard, as this season’s best teams have done so playing at a fast pace. The top two favorites to win the tournament, Gonzaga and Arizona, constantly look to run and do so successfully. They both rank in the top ten in shortest average possession length and offensive efficiency. They’re fun.

But picking the favorites isn’t particularly interesting, especially since the favorites this season actually aren’t likely to win it all. Oddsmakers give the best odds to Gonzaga, but at about 3-to-1, that suggests they have less than a 25 percent chance of winning a title. It’s further proof that heartbreak awaits you even if you’re a frontrunner. 

With that in mind, I am getting a little stupid, or maybe just Living My Ideals. Iowa is the team I’m getting behind this year, because they are exactly the type of college basketball team I want to see. The Hawkeyes are uptempo—they’re 20th in the land in possession length—and rank fourth in points per game. They also play just enough defense to give them a chance against great teams. You will be entertained. 

Iowa has some personality, too, and it’s bracingly weird. While the media heaps praise on coaches that win their press conferences, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery very often loses his. He’s viewed as an irrational hot-head and will never be associated with the greats of the game. But if McCaffrey is a total irascible sourpuss, he also deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done this season. There were 63 people who cover college basketball that voted in the preseason AP poll, and zero of them thought Iowa would be one of the best 25 teams in the land. Yet here they are, fresh off a Big Ten Conference Tournament win, with a five-seed and largely the same underlying statistical qualifications as last season, when they were ranked in the top ten most of the year and featured consensus player of the year Luka Garza. McCaffery’s even working on his temper, which is about all you can ask of a college coach. He’s picked up just two technical fouls this season, which is a long way off from the national leader; UMass-Lowell’s Pat Duquette logged eight. 

Iowa has another player of the year candidate this season in 6'8" sophomore Keegan Murray, who’s the best all-around player in the country. He’s averaging 24 points per game and he has the fourth-lowest turnover rate among the 2,200 rotation players in Division-I college basketball. He makes 62 percent of his two-point attempts and 41 percent of his threes. He’ll draw fouls, block shots, and throw in a majestic dunk every now and then. In short, he’s the most fun player in the country to watch right now, and has a combination of athleticism and skill that is unmatched by anyone at the college level. There may be better NBA prospects, but there’s probably no better college basketball player.

The real genius of Fran McCaffery is that he understood that having one Keegan Murray was not enough. McCaffery ignored the globally accepted principles of bioethics and cloned his superstar. The second Murray is named Kris and comes off the bench to avoid suspicion. He is ostensibly Keegan’s twin brother, although I have my doubts; whatever the truth is, here, he does many of the things Keegan does, and is the best sixth man in the country. 

This is still Iowa, though, and Fran McCaffery’s Iowa to be exact. McCaffery gave up trying to be a defensive wizard years ago. Why? I’d like to think it’s because he believes, as I do, that it’s more fun to lose a game 95-80 than to win one 42-36. McCaffery has never gone on record saying as much, and I’m sure if asked, he’d deny it; he does not seem like someone who’d be comfortable discussing the concept of “fun.” But deep in his soul, this simply must be what he believes. Last season, with Garza as its centerpiece, Iowa lost in the second round to Oregon, 95-80. This season, whenever it ends for Iowa, will end in a similar score.

Part of the issue is that in the college game, any team with a star like Murray or Garza must make sure that player stays on the floor. That means avoiding foul trouble, and opposing offenses will typically attack that player as a result. Garza was the poster child for this phenomenon. He made progress as a defender over his four years but was always challenged on the defensive end by his lack of foot speed and quickness. Throw in the fact that self-preservation was his top priority and that meant the Hawkeyes defense had a large hole in the middle.

With Garza out and Murray playing a larger role, Iowa’s defensive metrics are…remarkably similar to last year, actually. As they did last season, the Hawkeyes have struggled to stay in the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency. (They rank 78th heading into Thursday’s first-round game against Richmond.) Last season, Iowa allowed 1.034 points per possession in Big Ten play. This season they allowed 1.032. 

But there’s one fundamental difference in Iowa’s defense. Last season, they were the worst in the Big Ten at forcing turnovers. This season, they were the best. Iowa’s defense still struggles, but at least it’s active! The Murrays can block shots and get steals, and those turnovers lead to easy offense. There’s still the issue of Keegan Murray needing to avoid foul trouble at all costs. But he’s been able to do it while still contributing something defensively.

A bracket is no time to get overly analytical, at least not for me. Iowa is fun and capable of winning some games, and I am quite happy to leave it there. They have the Murrays. Their starting point guard, Jordan Bohannon, once stole a rug to bring attention to players' rights. He’s in his third senior season at Iowa, having played an NCAA record 178 games to date. He turns 25 in June.

They have two coaches sons, which on the surface is objectively pretty annoying, but they are neither the best or worst players on the team. Nor are they point guards who derive pleasure from taking charges. (At Iowa, charges aren’t really a thing. The Hawkeyes drew a mere 38 offensive fouls this season, which ranked 283rd in the country.) The McCafferys fit in perfectly as role players on a middle-of-the-road Big Ten roster, and as such will not become the main characters of whatever narrative broadcasters are trying to cobble together on the fly. Furthermore, Patrick McCaffery overcame thyroid cancer to be here. You can root for that! 

The main reason to back Iowa, though, is that they are both the most entertaining team in the field and pretty good. Whether they bow out the first weekend or the last, at no moment will anyone be bored watching them. Others can ride the wave of Gonzaga, Arizona, or Kentucky and root for Goliath. It may work out! But it very probably won’t, and if that’s the route you choose you’ll be spending these precious hours of March hoping against a Cinderella story. That’s no way to live. 

Especially when there is Iowa. They have flaws, and may well be undone by them along the way. But every game they play will be fun. If they lose, you can enjoy the rest of the tournament without the burden of a rooting interest. If they win, you will have fun watching them do it. Either way, your conscience will thank you for it. 

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