Iowa basketball's Dept. of Defense understaffed

Hawkeyes allow 20 more points per Big Ten road game than in 2015

Iowa forward Luka Garza (55) puts pressure on Michigan’s Moritz Wagner during Michigan’s 75-68 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 2. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa forward Luka Garza (55) puts pressure on Michigan’s Moritz Wagner during Michigan’s 75-68 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 2. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

It’s dog-bites-man news by now. The defense played — or not played — by the Iowa men’s basketball team this season hasn’t been good.

In conference games played by the 75 members of the six major basketball leagues through Monday, only Oklahoma (84.8) has allowed more points per game than Iowa’s 84.4.

In field goal defense, only Washington State and Illinois have been worse than Iowa’s 50.2 percent. In 3-point field goal defense, just California and TCU are worse in conference games than the Hawkeyes’ 42.2 percent.

Three seasons ago, Iowa allowed 66.1 points per game in road games. That increased to 74.4 points two seasons ago and 79.1 last season. This season it’s 86.7.

The best defense the Hawkeyes have played in the eight years Fran McCaffery has been Iowa’s coach was, he said, largely attributable to three players. They’re three players who perhaps didn’t get all the credit they could have for helping Iowa go from a bottom-division Big Ten program to one that didn’t have a losing conference season from 2013 through 2017.

“Our best (defensive team) had (Mike) Gesell, (Anthony) Clemmons and (Adam) Woodbury on the floor,” McCaffery said Tuesday before his team was to fly to Michigan for Wednesday night’s game against the No. 22 Michigan Wolverines.

“Gesell and Clemmons were really good perimeter defenders. Woodbury was probably the best post defender I’ve ever been around.

“You add Jarrod Uthoff’s shot-blocking and Aaron White’s crafty ability at making timely steals, and (Devyn) Marble was a really good defender, great anticipation and length. He could guard anybody at the 1 through 4.”

But now, Iowa’s cold, defenseless reality of mid-February is being 3-11 in the Big Ten and 12-15 overall, and facing its second road game against a ranked team in a five-day period.

Iowa has six double-digit losses in seven league road games. For a seventh in eight to be avoided, it must summon a defensive effort unlike what we’ve seen from it away from home.

Michigan is 9-5 and 20-7, and headed for the NCAA tourney barring a pratfall. The Wolverines snapped a five-game losing streak against Iowa by beating the Hawkeyes 75-68 in Iowa City on Jan. 2. They are coming off an 83-72 win Sunday at Wisconsin, another of the relatively few teams John Beilein’s program has struggled against over the years.

Six Wolverines have been first-round NBA draft picks since 2013. But this season’s Michigan is one of those deals where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No Wolverine has been the Big Ten’s Player of the Week or Freshman of the Week. Yet, 9-5 and 20-7.

The ray of light in Iowa’s 82-64 loss at Ohio State last Saturday was 6-foot-11 freshman Jack Nunge scoring 18 points, more than he had totaled over his previous five games.

“As good as he is now,” McCaffery said, “he has tremendous upside, tremendous attitude and work ethic.”

Nunge started all eight games from Dec. 4 to that Michigan game on Jan. 2, but hasn’t started since. He may start alongside fellow freshman big man Luka Garza Wednesday.

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