Breaking down Iowa’s broken defense


The Daily Iowan; Photo by Ben Al

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery speaks to his players during a timeout in the NCAA men's basketball game between Iowa and Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. The Hawkeyes are going into the game with a conference record of 1-7. Iowa went on to defeat Wisconsin 85-67. (Ben Allan Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Adam Hensley, [email protected]

Through 23 games, it seems like a broken record for Iowa basketball.

Defense, a catalyst for Iowa’s postseason runs, is nonexistent this season, and so are Iowa’s hopes for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Unless the Hawkeyes pull off a run for the ages — and the signs aren’t exactly pointing to that — it’s back to the drawing board for next season.

With Minnesota coming for a matchup in Carver-Hawkeye tonight, Iowa finds itself going head-to-head with a team struggling similarly in the Big Ten.

“We’re obviously struggling with defense,” Ahmad Wagner said. “It’s not just one particular thing … we’re struggling with it right now on-ball, helping the helper — everything.”

The Gophers, just like Iowa, boast a top-four scoring offense in the conference (77.9 pointer per game) and a cellar-dweller defense (72.6 points per game).

After Iowa’s 98-84 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln over the weekend, all that supposed momentum from the win over Wisconsin has gone dry.

“You go on the road and score 84 points, that should keep you in the game, but we gave up 98,” head coach Fran McCaffery said. “That’s not good math.”

RELATED: No defense, no win for Iowa hoops

The numbers aren’t in Iowa’s favor, just as the coach said, but that’s been a theme dating back to last season.

Through the 2016-17 season, Iowa finished dead last in the conference in points allowed per game (78.1), allowed the 12th-worst field-goal percentage (44.5 percent), and gave up 3-pointers at a 35.8 percent clip.

Iowa made a dent in the NIT because of its ability to light it up from all over the court. In the final game against TCU, however, defense was nowhere in sight during the 94-92 loss.

But take a look at the three seasons before that — all years Iowa advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

In those seasons, Iowa’s offense hasn’t been out-of-this-world (as it was last season), but solid defensive rankings kept Iowa competitive and relevant in the postseason.

The last time Iowa made the NCAA Tournament (the 2015-16 season), the Hawkeyes did alright in scoring defense (69.3 points per game, ninth in the Big Ten), but clamped down on shooting defense (42.1 field-goal percentage, sixth in the Big Ten) and 3-point defense (31.3 percent, second in the Big Ten).

Those numbers were a slight decrease from the previous season, however. During the 2014-15 season, Iowa gave up 62.3 points per game (second in the Big Ten), limited opponents’ field-goal percentage to 39.6 (third in the Big Ten), and only allowed 3-pointers to fall at a 32.6 percent rate (sixth in the Big Ten).

Arguably Iowa’s best defensive season under McCaffery came in 2012-13, when the Hawkeyes finished 25-13 after a deep run in the NIT.

That team ranked sixth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (62.8 points per game), third in field-goal defense (39.2 percent), and finished second in 3-point field-goal defense (29.5).

So to break that all down, before last season, Iowa’s possessed a capable defensive unit — mediocre at its lowest but still better than this season’s product.

RELATED: Garza, Cook slow Happ down, lead Hawkeyes to victory

It’s reasonable to factor in the change in pace of college hoops, but the numbers don’t lie — Iowa’s defensive marks have all started to fall since the 2012-13 season.

Iowa had players who, even if they may not have been as flashy offensively as this year’s and last season’s group, could defend, plain and simple.

Players such as Aaron White, Anthony Clemons, and Adam Woodbury anchored some of those teams, as well as Melsahn Basabe and shock-blocker-extraordinaire Gabriel Olaseni.

Iowa doesn’t have that lock-down defender — Nicholas Baer has shown he’s capable on that end of the floor, and Luka Garza flashed his potential by limiting Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, but consistency hasn’t been there.

“It comes down to us as players executing the game plan,” Baer said. “Our coaches are doing a nice job of scouting, giving us the information, and it’s really just coming down to us as players.”

Thus, McCaffery has resulted in mixing up his defenses in an attempt to keep opposing offenses guessing, and that won’t change against Minnesota tonight.

“We’ll continue to mix defenses and try to get better with our recognition,” he said. “Our recognition has not been good this year. It’s not.”





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