Assistant coach Matt Gatens helps Iowa men’s basketball prepare for defensive-minded Auburn

Gatens was an assistant coach at Auburn under current head coach Bruce Pearl from 2017-19.


Matt Sindt

Iowa assistant coach Matt Gatens speaks to reporters during a locker room interview at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

Chris Werner, Assistant Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM, Al — Iowa men’s basketball assistant coach Matt Gatens got his start in the coaching business at Auburn in 2017 under Tigers’ head coach Bruce Pearl.

After coaching at Auburn until 2019, Gatens went to Drake and then was hired this summer by Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery.

Pearl has stayed at Auburn and the Hawkeyes and Tigers are set to face off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at 5:50 p.m. in Birmingham, Alabama.

So, naturally, Gatens knows more than the average coach about the Hawkeyes’ next opponent. 

But Pearl has already altered his play calls so Gatens doesn’t know what’s coming.

“I already texted him,” Pearl said of Gatens. “I said, “Listen, don’t look down at me when I’m calling my under [the basket out-of-bounds plays] because even though we’re running some of the same sh@#$##, I’ve changed all the names just because you’re down there looking at me.”

That answer brought a laugh.

RELATED: NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament notebook | Former Iowa assistant coach and current Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talks Iowa, reflects on time as a Hawkeye

In all seriousness, the Hawkeye players said Gatens has been helpful in preparing them for the game against his former team.

“It’s obviously been really helpful,” Iowa forward Patrick McCaffery said of Gatens’ familiarity with the Auburn program. “You know, he worked there, worked for coach Pearl, worked for a lot of those guys. So, he knows a lot about what they do, I’m sure he knows a lot of the calls, he’s been giving us the calls, all that kind of stuff. So he knows kind of what they look for, what certain things they really hone in on, and what things are a little more lax about. Just the identity of the program … He knows and understands what they’re trying to accomplish on the floor.”

Gatens said he and the rest of the Iowa coaching staff have stressed taking care of the ball against Auburn. Gatens said the Tigers play their best basketball when they are forcing turnovers. 

“That’s key, absolutely,” Gatens said of being secure with the ball. “They’ll convert on those turnovers. When they’re really playing well, they’re getting turnovers running in transition, shooting transition 3s, playing really free and confident, so that’s definitely a key for us, as it always is. We always want to take care of the ball.”

The Tigers have poured in over 15 points per game off of opponent turnovers this season.

Fran McCaffery said good passing will help to counter Auburn’s defense. 

“They’re gonna be quick on the ball, and they’re gonna be pressuring the ball, the next pass, shooting gaps,” McCaffery said. “They’re an active team. Out-of-bounds plays, they’re going to be physical. So you really got to move the ball against them.”

Iowa senior center Filip Rebraca said, on film, Auburn’s intensity on defense reminds him of Michigan State’s.

“I mean, they’re very, very physical,” Rebraca said of Auburn, you know, I feel like they’re not identical to any team [that we’ve played this season,] But I feel like [Auburn is similar to] Michigan State, they’re always going to be pressuring you, they’re always up into you into your space and not letting you get loose.”

Auburn forces 13.3 turnovers per game.

Rebraca said the key to neutralizing Auburn’s aggressive ball pressure is with variety — trying to keep the Tiger defenders guessing.

“Shot fake, pass fake, but also mixing it up,” Rebraca said. I feel like you can’t let them know what you’re gonna do.”