Iowa's Ceiling

Well I certainly expected better from Iowa. With just one cupcake remaining between the Hawkeyes and the "main course" portion of Big Ten play, the team stands at 8-6, with all of those wins coming against teams firmly in the 100+ kenpom field. Iowa came close to beating Penn State at home, and Iowa State on the road, but that's really it. Fran McCaffrey's team also lost to Louisiana Lafayette and South Dakota State in the Cayman Islands. And although the final margin was not that bad, ULL had a 20-point halftime lead.

What the heck is wrong with Iowa?

Yes, there are the usual complaints. McCaffrey has a deep rotation, seemingly no matter the talent differential between the best 5 and the next best 5. The turnovers remain high—Jordan Bohannon has not shown any growth from last season in that department. And Nicholas Baer has suddenly decided he's a scorer at the precise moment when he cannot make a shot.

Still, it's hard to figure out what's wrong with Iowa because of Fran's insistence on scheduling cupcakes. The overall numbers for Luke Garza, for instance, look great. The freshman center has made 60 percent of his 2s, and is a devastating rebounder on both ends. Also, he's not prone to turnovers, and he gets to the line at a rapid pace.

But let's take a closer look, shall we?


That's a heck of a dropoff once you only look at the Tier A & B games (top 50 & 100 opponents, adjusted for home/road/neutral). Suddenly, Garza is a mere 53 percent shooter, and apparently is shooting free throws blindfolded. He's no rim protector, and his offensive rebounding is just "average." I think Garza is better than this, but this is the kind of data mess you get when you have so many games against the 300+ crowd. Is Iowa that stingy with buy game dollars? Sure, there's danger in scheduling a losable opponent and suddenly the opposing fans are rushing the court and drinking Clorox, but surely that's better than showing the world that, yes, your Big Ten team is 11 points better than Grambling State.


Oh, right, I suppose I should get to something informative. One area where the Hawkeyes are struggling where maybe they should not be is on the defensive end. McCaffrey is no defensive genius—his teams have peaked in the "a little about average for a Big Ten team" range—but this team should be better than its shown on that end of the floor. And, maybe it will be:

Year Defensive Efficiency Percentile (All-D1) Block Percentage
2011 16.2 8
2012 59.4 9.3
2013 6.9 12.6
2014 21.9 13.5
2015 9.7 13.1
2016 8.5 12.3
2017 35 9.4

In general, when McCaffrey has had rim protectors at his disposal, the defense has been at its best. The 2013-16 years could be classified as "The Woodbury Years," though the irony is that Adam Woodbury himself was not much of a rim protector (though he was at least fair in that department as a freshman). This season, aided by the arrival of freshmen Garza and Jack Nunge, the block percentage has risen back to 12.1. But the defense has been stubbornly mediocre.

The block percentage also does not appear to be an artifact of easy scheduling. The Hawkeyes were above the 12.1 average in their games vs. Virginia Tech, Penn State, and Indiana (half of the losses). We're still firmly within the small sample size caveat zone, so it may be the case that the defensive efficiency is due for catching up. Or, alternatively, that the block percentage is due for a downturn.

That said, even if the block percentage helps out, what is the upside, really? The best defensive efficiency under McCaffrey was 4th in Big Ten play, and the Hawkeyes have been below average most of the time. Iowa's scheme is still one that encourages three-point attempts. The Hawkeyes frequently go under screens to prevent dribble penetration, but in an age of ever-increasing three-point competency, that approach might be getting long in the tooth.

More concerning though, is just how generally bad the Hawkeyes are in defending ball screens. I wish I could say I had to hunt for some examples, but they really manifested themselves within the first few minutes of the first game I picked at random.

What's apparent, first and foremost, is how lost the screener defender appears to be. The hedging is a half-hearted effort, one which seems to be on a timer, rather than as long as necessary to allow the primary defender to recover. The result is an open layup.

It's also worth noting that not a lot of attention is paid to the screening player, as the next clip shows. The pick and roll, in its most basic form, is something players have defended against at pretty much all levels of competitive play. There's no magic offense being deployed here, it's all very by the book.

Because the screener defender is usually struggling to hedge correctly, it usually requires helpside defense to cover the screening player. That, of course, leads to someone else being open. Most pick and roll offenses at the collegiate level are not so much geared to creating instant opportunities for the ball/screener, but rather for open looks on the perimeter for off-ball players. Iowa seems to be far from capable of consistently defending those looks.

But what really flummoxes me is why Iowa is always such a poor defensive rebounding team. It's not for lack of size, as this year's roster would indicate. Further, one can't blame a zealous defense of the perimeter, as discussed above. I cannot figure out a schematic reason for it.

Maybe this is the stuff of a young team that still has not adjusted to the intensity of the college game. Or, maybe it's the result of the emphasis placed on defense by McCaffrey. While there might be some defensive gains to be had by virtue of improved shotblocking this season, I suspect Iowa's defensive ceiling remains present.