The University of Iowa men’s basketball team makes its return to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last six seasons, but when the 10th-seeded Hawkeyes face the seventh-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats on Friday in Columbus, Ohio, it will be the first for 15 Hawkeyes.

Senior Nicholas Baer is the only returning member from an Iowa squad that advanced to the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. It’s the biggest stage in college basketball, but Baer knows his team is ready.

“The schedule is a little different and you do things you probably aren’t used to, but these guys have been ready for this opportunity for their entire lives,” Baer said. “This is why they came here.”

With the opening round five days away, preparation is crucial. There isn’t much Tournament film to look back on of an Iowa versus Cincinnati game, but the last game between the two squads was a 10th-seeded Iowa against a seventh-seeded Cincinnati in 2005.

“We need to prepare properly,” head coach Fran McCaffery said. “This is a very business-like group and they appreciate the opportunity and they know what it means. There is no question they will focus and lock into our game plan for the game on Friday.”

Sophomore forward Luka Garza, who is averaging 19.5 points over his last two games, will make his first trip to the Tournament and already knows it’s a different mindset in March.

“You have to be consistent now or you’re going home,” Garza said. “We know it’s over if we lose, so we have to play as hard as we can and we have the confidence to beat anybody in the country. It’s about surviving and advancing.”

The Hawkeyes were ranked for 16 weeks over the course of the 2019 season with wins over eventual Big 12 and Pac-12 Tournament Champions in Iowa State and Oregon, respectively. Iowa finished its nonconference season with a perfect 11-0 record for the first time since the 1986-87 season.

“It will be nice to play some teams who haven’t been scouting us constantly, but we also understand that Cincinnati will provide some tough challenges for us,” Baer said.

While the Bearcats may provide tough challenges, they may not be unfamiliar challenges.

“(Cincinnati head coach) Mick Cronin is a great friend of mine,” McCaffery said. “They are a tremendous defensive team and pride themselves on their defensive efforts and intensity. They are reminiscent of a lot of Big Ten teams we face.”

“It’s a fight every night,” Baer said. “We couldn’t be more excited.”