Can Iowa Shore Up Its Shoddy Defense in Time?Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 4th, 2014
After three seasons at the helm, Fran McCaffery will finally take Iowa back to the NCAA Tournament. That’s the good part about the Hawkeyes’ season. The next logical question is whether they can win more than one game there. With a 20-9 record and an RPI in the 30s, it is likely that the Hawkeyes will be on one of the top six seed lines, which could put them in a dreaded #5/#12 match-up against a decent team. Even if they get past that round, they’ll have to beat a Top 25 quality team that is likely to be offensively talented. At this late point in the season, it is still unclear if the Hawkeyes can defend well enough to beat a team that can run in a track meet with them. Over their last four games they have given up 1.21, 1.31, 1.12 and 1.06 points per possession, respectively, against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue. Those numbers do not bode well for a team looking to make some noise as we head into March.
Defense has been an issue for Iowa all season long, and a lack of it is the main reason they have been unable to close out many games. Their record is a bit deceiving because they have won all of the games that they were supposed to, but they really only have two quality wins on the year: at Ohio State and vs. Michigan in Iowa City — even in both of those games, the Hawkeyes gave up more than a point per possession to the Buckeyes and the Wolverines. A win against Xavier, another NCAA Tournament team, is impressive, but an argument can be made that the absence of Musketeers’ star Semaj Christan during the second half helped the Hawkeyes. These observations are not intended to take anything away from Iowa’s resume this season, but merely to point out that its stay in March Madness could be a short one unless they find some answers on defense, and soon.
Giving up an average of 1.04 points per possession during conference play isn’t awful when you can score 1.13 points per possession on the offensive end. The Hawkeyes’ front line of Gabriel Olaseni, Melsahn Basabe, and Adam Woodbury is clearly excellent on the defensive glass because they are best rebounding team in the Big Ten – a conference-best 38.0 percent offensive rebounding rate proves their strength. But they struggle defending in the half-court and aren’t great at communicating against half-court sets. Opponents shoot 49 percent from the mid-range against the Hawkeyes, and the lack of a strong interior defender enables opponents to get to the free throw line far too easily. To punctuate the point, Big Ten teams average 0.39 free throw attempts per field goal attempt against Iowa’s team defense. McCaffery’s personnel doesn’t specialize in defensive stops because his most athletic and capable guard, Roy Devyn Marble, is too busy trying to carry the team offensively, and sophomore guard Mike Gesell isn’t quick enough to keep with wings such as Caris LeVert, Gary Harris or Sam Dekker. Outside of those two perimeter players, McCaffery is left with Anthony Clemmons or Zach McCabe to fill the gaps, two players who are a clear step down in terms of defensive prowess. It also doesn’t help that Aaron White plays a small forward position because he is stuck defending players who are significantly quicker than him. White is essentially a power forward, and while he gains an edge against smaller players on the offensive glass, he gives up quite a few easy baskets on the defensive end due to a relative lack of foot speed.
The more we consider the makeup of this team, it is clearly not designed to be a defensive juggernaut. However, the notion of outscoring all of your opponents can be a very tough challenge in a tournament setting where players may get fatigued from the travel schedule. Once again, there is no reason to believe that Iowa can’t get to a Sweet Sixteen or beyond if the match-ups are in their favor, but expect that Round of 32 game to be extremely difficult because McCaffery’s team will have to get some stops during the second half. The benefit of the doubt belongs to the Hawkeyes at this point, but keeping an eye out for their defensive intensity over the next few games will give us a more informed idea about their ultimate potential in the NCAAs.