Iowa basketball searching for intangible answers

Hawkeyes unable to fall back on a few key things that most teams can when execution falls short

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery talks to his team during a time out early in the second half of a men’s game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, December 29, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery talks to his team during a time out early in the second half of a men’s game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Friday, December 29, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Pride. Desire. Determination. Patience.

Iowa men’s basketball head coach Fran McCaffery talked about those four things Tuesday when discussing offensive and defensive struggles for the Hawkeyes. At 9-9 and 0-5 in the Big Ten, it’s evident things are wrong. The “why” of it isn’t so obvious, whether anyone wants to believe that or not.

Headed into a road matchup with a likewise-defeated Illinois team on Thursday at 7 p.m. (FS1), Iowa has to draw a line in the sand somewhere.

McCaffery said on a teleconference Tuesday the four intangible aspects to successful athletic endeavors mentioned above are more than just buzzwords. It’s not that this team doesn’t have each one of those things — Tyler Cook got a technical for standing up in the face of Maryland’s Bruno Fernando, for instance. It’s that those things aren’t working in concert.

“It’s been more challenging than we thought it would be, clearly,” McCaffery said. “But what you do in those situations is you deal with the situation at hand.”

Let’s start with pride and desire.

Those are two things Hawkeyes players have said this team needs, especially on defense, where the most glaring lapses have come in the last three games. Their attitude toward stopping opponents matters a great deal, obviously.

But pride and desire are the things a player falls back on when the fundamentals don’t work, McCaffery said.

Consider the following 209 words, which McCaffery offered as things his players have to consider when getting back on defense. It’s a lot, but stick with it.

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“How do you play transition defense? How do you play ball screens? How do you play your man-to-man? How do you play your zone? What are your rotations and your press? It’s understanding how everything fits, and then how to get in the right place positionally — that starts with your feet — and what are you doing with your hands? Are your hands in the passing lanes? Are your hands up? If you’re playing ball screens and you’re going show-between, are your hands up so they can’t get the pass over the top, or they can’t hit the corner if the help comes from the corner? Where are you helping from, and why? Are you helping the helper? Help the helper who helps the helper,” McCaffery said.

Take a breath. There’s more.

“There’s so many things that enter into good defense, and then it comes down to a competitive instinct that’s required by all five people,” McCaffery said. “Desire, yeah. You’ve got to go. If the guy’s beat, you’ve got to help. You’ve got to drop down and help. Then you factor in scouting. Who are the shooters? Who are the drivers? Who are the post-up guys? How are we playing the post-up guys? How are we playing their play sets? How are we playing our zone?”

Dizzy yet? Yeah, and you’re not tired from running up and down the floor, or from the noise of an arena or the pressure of your coaches, parents, fans and critics.

When all — or even some — of that fails, what’s left is what separates the teams who excel from those who fade.

“There are a number of areas where you can break down,” McCaffery said. “At the end of the day, if you do play with incredible heart and determination and desire, you can overcome mistakes in those other areas, just by your activity level.”

Now let’s consider patience and determination.

McCaffery acknowledged Tuesday the defense has been bad. He’s going to defend his players, and that in his view, “for 30 minutes, 32 minutes of the game we’re playing pretty good basketball,” while the other eight to 10 are very much not good basketball. One could argue the semantics or exact minutes played, but the fact Iowa has led in all three of these most recent Big Ten losses suggests he’s at least a little bit right.

Iowa’s success has come when its offense is clicking. It’s been well-documented that for this team, most of the time, offense creates defense in the form of one of those aforementioned intangibles, desire. Offense is created for this team through the second pair, most of all patience.

McCaffery spoke directly to everyone watching his team Tuesday, saying those at the scorer’s table (TV), at press row (yours truly) and in the stands (you) might sometimes think what’s going wrong is simple. Taking a minute to think, and of course his point is right, it’s not.

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Teaching patience is “probably the hardest thing,” McCaffery said. At the basic level, college basketball players want to prove themselves. They want to win. It’s hard to be “patient-aggressive,” as McCaffery said his assistant Kirk Speraw relays to players. Knowing the play called, the situation, the opponent’s defense and floor spacing makes a split-second decision of what to do with the ball more than just instinct.

McCaffery said his staff tries to ask players, “’what were you thinking on this play; what was going through your head,’” because “you can’t get them to improve unless you get them to think on their own. You can’t give them rules for everything.”

Intangible talents make tangible talents come alive. Pride. Desire. Determination. Patience. Those things beget execution.

“The game is not one that’s mechanical,” McCaffery said. “It’s a free-flowing game that requires multiple decisions in a very short period of time. I think, ultimately, aggressiveness is the way to go.

“You’re constantly working on communicating those factors and trusting your guys to trust themselves because if they don’t trust themselves, they’re never going to be any good anyway.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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