Moving forward, Iowa sets eyes on defense


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Among the myriad issues facing the Iowa men’s basketball team, one stood out to head coach Fran McCaffery following the Hawkeyes’ 74-63 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin on Jan. 31: defensive consistency.

Since the start of the season, the Hawks have repeatedly said they needed to defend better than they did last season, particularly in moments when the offense can’t find its rhythm.

For a while, 13 nonconference games to be exact, that philosophy rang true. Iowa boasted one of the best defenses in the Big Ten.

Then conference play began, which coincided with the Hawkeyes’ struggles. Those struggles have become more evident during Iowa’s recent three-game skid.

“We have been great at times, we have been really bad at times, we have been mediocre a good portion of the time,” McCaffery said. “And I think if we can get more consistent defensively, I think it will greatly affect our offensive execution and efficiency.”

There’s bound to be some regression to defensive statistics when any team, especially any team in the Power Five conferences, starts its conference schedules. Better competition typically translates to better offenses. However, Iowa’s numbers have ballooned more than the squad would like.

In eight conference games, Iowa has allowed 70.5 points per game, 13th in the conference. The only team allowing more points per game in conference play is Indiana, which allows 71.9 points per game.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Iowa’s defense is that in Big Ten play, opposing teams are shooting 45.4 percent from the field (12th in the conference), 51.1 percent on 2-point field goals (13th in the conference), and 35.2 percent from 3-point range (10th in the conference).

To add insult to injury, the Hawkeyes rank second-to-last in the conference in turnovers created in league play.

Bottom line: Iowa has trouble getting stops.

“One of our keys to this game was getting consecutive stops,” Mike Gesell said about the Wisconsin game. “And we weren’t able to do that. That’s something we really need to do if we’re going to play up to our potential.”

Several reasons might explain this other than just the commencement of conference play.

Not only is Iowa in the heart of its Big Ten schedule, the Hawkeyes’ first eight conference games have been particularly grueling. Iowa’s conference opponents thus far have combined to average 73.2 points per game. To put that in perspective, Iowa’s next nine opponents average a combined 69.1 points per game.

Among the six Big Ten teams that Iowa has played, four of them rank in the top five of the Big Ten in points per game.

“I mean, we’re playing better teams,” Adam Woodbury said. “Good teams make tough shots.”

Second, the switch of Peter Jok into the starting lineup in place of Anthony Clemmons was bound to result in some regression. Clemmons is one of the better perimeter defenders in the Big Ten, and while Jok has improved, he’s not at Clemmons’ level.

So how does Iowa improve in this regard? There’s probably not a definitive answer.

Gesell thinks it comes down to not taking possessions off. Woodbury said the onus falls on the players and that there’s only so much McCaffery can do, because the team needs to make plays.

Whatever the solution is, it’s needs to appear soon; the Hawkeyes are treading a tenuous line between being an NCAA Tournament team and one that may find themselves in the NIT come springtime.

“We’re .500 right now, so obviously we’re not 0-8 or anything like that,” Gabe Olaseni said. “But we’re definitely not where we wanted to be at this point of the season.

“We need to go back to the drawing board and understand that it starts on the defensive end.”

Follow @JacobSheyko on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa basketball team.

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