IOWA CITY — No Big Ten program has made year-over-year defensive strides like Iowa.
The Hawkeyes (15-9, 4-7 Big Ten) have allowed eight fewer points per game this year than last, by far the league’s greatest point drop. Through 24 games, Iowa now allows 63.9 points per game, down from 72 a contest over the same span last year.
More than half of Iowa’s games were in non-conference play, but the Hawkeyes have shown similar strides in league contests. Through 11 Big Ten games a year ago, Iowa gave up 74.2 points. This year’s average is 67.2.
In the aftermath of a 70-66 win against Wisconsin nearly four weeks, Iowa senior guard/forward Eric May touted the defense as instrumental to the team’s success. In the first half Iowa forced eight turnovers and held the Badgers to a season-low 23.1 shooting percentage.
“We were able to take them out of what they wanted to run,” May said at the time. “That says a lot because Wisconsin is a deliberate team. They’re experienced. They’ve got a lot of veteran guys who are out on the court, and we took it to them.”
The improvements are dramatic considering the Big Ten boasts five top-20 teams, including three in the top 10. For Iowa, it’s part of a 12-month defensive overhaul that has paid major dividends.
“I think the focus this year, and I said this at the start of the year, it starts with putting pressure on the basketball,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “It starts at the point of attack. Whether we are in a full-court press, half-court press, or half-court man-to-man or zone, it’s the point of attack.”
Much of Iowa’s defensive upgrade revolves around its depth. Iowa consistently rotates 10 players for at least eight minutes of action. Last year Iowa employed a shorter bench and suffered through injuries to point guard Bryce Cartwright and May. This year’s point guards Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell are attentive on-ball defenders. Underclassman centers Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni, as well as veteran forwards Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe, are diligent against their opponents in the post.
Points allowed is just one statistical improvement. Iowa ranked last among Big Ten teams in field-goal defense a year ago at 45.5 percent. This year, the Hawkeyes are second at 38.8 percent. Iowa ranks first in 3-point defense at 28.5 percent. In 2011-12, the Hawkeyes were seventh at 34.6 percent.
“One of the problems last year was we couldn’t keep guys in front of us, and we gave up second shots,” McCaffery said. “If you don’t do those two things, teams are going to shoot a high percentage against you. Teams are going to get broken play 3s, which is a wide-open shot and it will increase their shooting percentage from that distance.
“From those two areas, our rebounding is better, our point-of-attack defense is better, we have more experience, and I have fresher bodies. We are able to sustain pressure defense longer.”
Iowa has needed its defense just to stay in games this year. The Hawkeyes average three fewer points per Big Ten game and two fewer points overall on offense.
“When your offense is sputtering, particularly on the road, that is when your defense has to be rock solid,” McCaffery said. “Oftentimes when your defense falters it’s because your offense is struggling. It is a sign of immaturity or lack of depth.“This year we have been able to get some stops when we were missing shots. I look at all those things collectively as the reason we are better.”