Iowa's defensive focus lies on-ball

Hawkeyes lost best individual defender on perimeter in Christian Williams, scouting reporting a key

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon (3) gets the ball from Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Corey Sanders (3) during the first half of a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena  in Iowa City on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Jordan Bohannon (3) gets the ball from Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Corey Sanders (3) during the first half of a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

It might feel redundant, the answer Iowa players give when asked on what they need to improve most.

Defense, defense, defense.

That’s been the story for the last year-plus. It was the biggest question most of the 2016-17 season, and while the opponents so far in 2017-18 haven’t given the Hawkeyes the best gauge to measure whatever progress they might’ve made, it’s what the players are offering again.

Iowa remains a mostly man-to-man defensive team, so the first line of being efficient on that end comes on the ball. From Jordan Bohannon to Isaiah Moss to Brady Ellingson to Maishe Dailey and (eventually) Connor McCaffery, the guards have a lot on their plate. In plenty of scenarios this year, the Iowa guards are going to be at a quickness or athletic disadvantage in those one-on-one scenarios.

If the Hawkeyes are going to bring a trophy home from the Cayman Islands Classic, much less go to the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to have to figure it out.

“I think it comes down to knowing the scouting report,” Bohannon said. “That’s something I could’ve done a lot better job of last year. I talked a lot about that with coach in the offseason, just knowing the scouting report a lot better. I was talking with my brother, and he mentioned the guys he played with at Wisconsin obviously weren’t the quickest guys when they went to the Final Four, but they were all locked down on the scouting report and they all knew what the guys they were guarding were going to do.”

Bohannon had a lot of good examples to watch in paying attention to his older brothers’ teams. Guys like Jeremy Morgan at Northern Iowa, who played with brother Matt, and Zak Showalter, who played with Zach, showed what it meant to marry individual defending with the “five as one” concept so many teams discuss. Bohannon mentioned Showalter specifically in how he took angles to cut people off.

Knowing the scouting report means watching film — “a lot of film. A lot more than I probably would like to. Don’t tell coach that,” Bohannon said through a smile. (Sorry, Jordan.) It means understanding that film and the teaching methods head coach Fran McCaffery and his staff put forth.


Different staffs have different ways of teaching or approaching on-ball defense. McCaffery said some coaches “will force one way. We don’t do that. We square up.” There again re-enters the quickness factor, as well as the five-as-one factor.

“The question then becomes: Where do you put the rest of the guys?” McCaffery said. “Are they in denial or in the gaps? We’re kind of in between there and we get over toward the ball, and then how are you playing ball screens? That’s the other side of it. Do you take it to the ball screen or do you go away from the ball screen or do you trap the ball screen? Those kinds of things.

“It really depends on who you are playing and what their offense is and how you want to guard their particular action. Because sometimes we’re concerned about guarding their action and sometimes we’re concerned about — not about their action. It’s who’s got the ball and what does that guy do. So it’s always a little bit of both on that.”

Iowa lost its best individual perimeter defender in Christian Williams, who left the team shortly before the season and will transfer from the school at semester. That leaves the Hawkeyes trying to fill his void defensively at that position.

So of that group listed above, who’s the best right now?

McCaffery mentioned Ellingson first, then Moss, Bohannon and Dailey while saying Connor has struggled but is getting used to it at this level. Ellingson mentioned Moss first. Bohannon said it was Dailey, and that it was because Dailey guarded Williams a lot in practice and learned from that experience.

Ultimately, it’s hard for them to get better just in practice when it comes specifically to on-ball defense. Seeing the same things from the same guys every day leads to predicting tendencies. Even if the first few games weren’t as competitive, they at least offered the chance to face different people.

The Hawkeyes will get more chances in the Caymans.

“It’s really difficult,” Bohannon said. “Obviously you’re going against the same guys every day in practice, so you pretty much know what everyone’s doing. It’s hard to translate into games like that. These couple games give us a better opportunity to work on that.”

Iowa’s first game at the Cayman Islands Classic is set for 11 a.m. against Louisiana.

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