Iowa's defensive communication key vs. TCU

Hawkeyes have come a long way in switching defenses on the fly, could come in handy Sunday

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IOWA CITY — Before practice Friday afternoon, the Iowa men’s basketball team said they hadn’t yet completed the scout of TCU for Sunday’s second-round NIT game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. That was to come in the moments after the players met with media.

But without having watched much of anything on the Horned Frogs before that — other than maybe highlights of their upset of Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament — it was made pretty obvious the Hawkeyes’ defense is going to be tested.

Senior Peter Jok has a friend in Iowa State’s Naz Mitrou-Long, whose Cyclones ended TCU’s conference tournament. Jok said, “Naz told me they’re a great team. Coming from a player like him, that gave me their attention that they’re a pretty good team.”

With slashing guards in Alex Robinson and Jaylen Fisher, and a guard/forward combo in Kenrich Williams on the outside to complement the team’s leading scorer in forward Vlad Brodziansky, the Hawkeyes’ defense is going to face yet another daunting task.

Against South Dakota, Iowa had success shifting defensive formations from possession to possession, throwing man-to-man, 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone at the Coyotes. The Hawkeyes showed comfort in doing that Wednesday night — and at other times in the waning games of the season. It might’ve taken some time to get there, but all the players asked on Friday afternoon said they’re fine in whatever set might be working best at the time.

They’ll need to be to advance to the quarterfinals of the NIT.

“We’re really comfortable. Especially with 30 games now under our belt. Obviously as freshmen it took us a while to get adjusted to it just because we switched defenses non-stop every possession,” freshman guard Jordan Bohannon said. “That comes from communication from me, communication from the back line in the zone and stuff like that. We’re all paying attention to coach during dead ball situations because he’s always calling some other defense. It really helps when we’re switching defenses on the opposing team because they never know what to run.”

It’s that last bit where Iowa has had the most success.

Jok said Friday “We’re not where we need to be, but from where we started, we’ve come a long ways,” and while that’s true, the breakdowns still happen — as they do with most every team. But when an effective switch happens after a made shot, the opponent has to waste at least a handful of seconds adjusting to running something new. That allows the Hawkeyes, in theory, to better anticipate what’s coming.

Coach Fran McCaffery has done this since he’s been at Iowa, and he’ll keep doing it because of that effectiveness.

McCaffery echoed something Bohannon said, in that communication is king when being effective. When working with a young group, it’s a process to teach the specific zones and man-to-man principles McCaffery wants them to have.

“It’s one thing to change defenses. It’s another to change defenses and do it effectively and remain connected so you have a good chance of getting a stop and getting a rebound. From that standpoint, that took a little bit of time,” McCaffery said. “The most important thing is as the season progressed, they started communicating a lot better. You really need to do that, regardless of how smart you are or experienced you might be. There’s a lot of things happening simultaneously, and you have to have your teammates talking to you throughout the process so you can be effective.”

Forward Tyler Cook also said he thinks the team has gotten very comfortable in the process of quickly changing defenses, and his reasoning stood with having Bohannon on the floor as “an extension of Coach on the floor.”

As Bohannon said, this far into the season, they know the sets, but Cook added that they’re all comfortable in various positions within each set.

Cook said he’s fine working on the wing or the middle of the baseline in 2-3 zone, cutting “size and quickness” of all the frontcourt players. Bohannon joked his role running the baseline in 1-3-1 might cause him to “call my own defense,” but that if it’s working he’s fine. Jok didn’t care either way — “Whatever is flowing — whatever team defense we’re playing better at,” he said.

McCaffery likes to hear that kind of thing, and he likes what he’s seen in that area, too. He didn’t disagree with Cook’s assessment of Bohannon’s communication impact, but he did offer a slight alternative to it.

The seventh-year coach doesn’t rely on just one player to make sure everyone is in the right position. Any success Iowa has against TCU on defense Sunday will be because everyone shared information with each other on the fly.

“What happens a lot of time with the frontcourt guys, if we’re pressing or if we’re in the zone, they’ve got to get back and they’re the ones communicating. They’re the ones communicating the ball screens because the ball screens are coming up behind the guards,” McCaffery said. “In the beginning what you have is some young guys who aren’t sure what to say, so they don’t say anything. Sometimes that’s better, rather than communicating the wrong information. As the season has progressed, all of those guys have done a great job there.”

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

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