Iowa Men's Basketball

A No. 134 defense won't let Iowa men's basketball grab brass rings

If defense doesn't shape up, great Iowa offense will be wasted

Ohio State men's basketball players celebrate their 89-85 Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena while Iowa's Jack Nunge and L
Ohio State men’s basketball players celebrate their 89-85 Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena while Iowa’s Jack Nunge and Luka Garza walk off the court. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

KenPom.com is a sacred website to many men’s college basketball followers, with Ken Pomeroy’s rankings cited by many as gospel.

Entering this weekend, Pomeroy had Iowa at No. 4 overall despite the Hawkeyes losing three of their last four games. KenPom has Iowa first in the nation in what he calls adjusted offensive efficiency, which is points per 100 possessions. Those are good things.

The problem for the Hawkeyes is they were 134th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The six other teams in KenPom’s top seven as of Friday morning were no worse than 16th in that category.

Of the teams in last season’s final AP Top 25, only six weren’t in the top 50 of KenPom’s defensive efficiency. The worst was No. 25 Iowa, at 97th.

So after for hearing for months that the Hawkeyes had a potential Final Four team — including from Iowa players themselves — the narrative near and far is that they now don’t have the defense to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

It’s hard to argue against that, given Iowa scored 85 points at home Thursday against Ohio State, made 14 3-pointers, and still lost.

“They can get hot and win a couple (in the NCAA tourney),” longtime national basketball writer Jeff Goodman said Friday, “but eventually their defense is going to fail them.”

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On their podcast for ESPN, former Division I head coaches Dan Dakich and Seth Greenberg weren’t big on the Hawkeyes even before Thursday’s loss. On Tuesday they talked about the Hawkeyes’ defeats at home to Indiana Jan. 21 and at Illinois Jan. 29.

“When Iowa’s been in those tough games I haven’t seen them make those tough plays,” Greenberg said.

“I think Iowa has the toughest dude (Luka Garza),” Dakich said, “but … the Big Ten is more about psychology than anything else.

“(The Indiana loss) was no surprise to me. I didn’t know it would be Indiana, but it would be somebody that came into Iowa City and beat Iowa. They quit in that game. Then they followed up in a tough grinder … against Illinois, and Illinois out-toughed them. I don’t buy Iowa.”

So, that’s where we are as the Hawkeyes play at Indiana Sunday. Iowa is 7-4 in the Big Ten and needing plenty of wins to get a top-four Big Ten finish and a bye to Friday’s quarterfinals of the league’s tournament for the first time since 2007.

Eighteen games into the season, can the Hawkeyes’ defense improve enough to change the way they’re viewed? It was fully sufficient during their five-game Big Ten winning streak. Iowa’s opponents in that run shot a combined 41 percent from the field, 34 percent from 3-point distance.

In the four games since, those numbers are 46.3 and 43.3.

Ohio State’s Justin Ahrens got three open treys from the 4:27 to the 2:39 marks of the second half. He made all three.

Ahrens had eight shots against Iowa. All were 3-point tries. His 25 shots over his four previous games were all 3-pointers. He made six in a game against Iowa two years ago. He was allowed to make three in less than two minutes with Thursday’s game on the line.

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This is an old, tired song for Hawkeyes basketball under Fran McCaffery. The list of players who have had career shooting nights against McCaffery’s teams could stretch from Shueyville to Seymour, Ind.

Iowa doesn’t have a collection of great defenders, but the thought and/or hope for this season was that with the players’ experience and smarts, they could play adequate enough defense to go with their most-efficient offense in the lifetimes of many of us.

As a former Indiana basketball coach who won three NCAA titles once said, good basketball always starts with good defense.

If decent defense doesn’t emerge, this won’t be a special season for Iowa. And if this season doesn’t end up feeling special, it may be as disappointing as any that has been seen here.

“This Iowa team is tremendous,” said Ohio State Coach Chris Holtmann. “They are really, really good. They’re talented, very well-coached.”

Ohio State is really, really good. Indiana, though, is 4-6 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes need to play good defense and win in Bloomington Sunday. They just do.

Comments: (319) 398-8440; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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