Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa basketball offseason goals: Strengthen physically, mentally

No mystery to improving Iowa basketball. It's all about defense.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery talks to forward Tyler Cook during a game against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last season. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery talks to forward Tyler Cook during a game against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last season. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Monday is Media Day for the Iowa men’s basketball team, a preview of what may seem far away given the Hawkeyes’ season-opener isn’t until Nov. 8.

But college basketball is a virtual year-round sport.

“We went 5-on-5 for four hours a week and were in the weight room four hours a week,” ninth-year Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said last week in an interview with The Gazette. “We’ve been pretty busy in June, July and September, kind of on that schedule.”

Basketball season is officially open. Like everyone else, the Hawkeyes are looking ahead. But before getting to October, McCaffery had to confront and try to correct what went so very wrong last season, when Iowa was 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 overall.

“We really amped it up in the weight room,” said McCaffery. “I didn’t feel we were strong enough.

“(Sophomore center) Jack Nunge looks completely different now. (Junior big man) Ryan Kriener looks better. ... We look better, and I think that will manifest itself over a long season of being in the kind of condition we need to be in.”

A more-obvious problem area for the Hawkeyes is one that isn’t solved with pumping iron. They allowed a Big Ten-worst 83.1 points a game in conference play.

Iowa gave up more points per game than it had since 1994-95. Opponents hadn’t shot field goals or 3-pointers against the Hawkeyes with as much success since 1993-94.

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“You look at our offensive numbers, really impressive,” McCaffery said. “You look at our in-conference ranking and our national ranking for offensive productivity, high numbers. Numbers that typically equate to 20 wins. But we had 19 losses.

“Why were our defensive numbers so horrible? Why weren’t we connected? What was it about our transition defense that gave us problems all year? What was it about our ball-screen defense that wasn’t what we needed to be when it came to rotations after the screen-roll? Why was our zone not as good as it has been? Was it our activity level? Was it our recognition?”

All good questions. The answers don’t come as easily. You can break down game film until it’s dust. But here’s what McCaffery said his staff did with the team in on-court sessions:

“We spent more time at the defensive end.

“I’ve always been an offensive coach. I’ve always felt like we’ve got to be able to score the ball, especially at the end of the game. In today’s game you’ve got to make threes. So we do a lot of shooting, encourage our guys to shoot and make threes.”

But defense is about desire and hustle as much as anything. Four seasons ago, Iowa held opponents under both 63 points per game and 40 percent shooting. Seven of the top eight players on that team were juniors and seniors.

“You have to have a certain mind-set that’s necessary,” McCaffery said. “It comes down to how do you compete. It’s not like we’re expecting perfection. But if you come down and you turn it over or miss a shot, run back and make sure they don’t score.

“It’s that simple concept of being determined enough and connected enough to overcome your missed shots and your mistakes.”

Maybe a team that’s a year older and more experienced will embrace that simple concept. Iowa returns its top nine scorers from last season. Maybe it’s having a team that is tired of life as a Big Ten afterthought.

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“It starts with everybody kind of coming to a realization you’ve got to take responsibility,” said McCaffery. “There’s nobody blaming anybody. Look at what you could do differently, what can you do better? How as a staff do we help our players get better?

“We really got after it this summer. ... I’m happy with our roster, with the quality of people in our program, with their work ethic, their love for each other, and their commitment to being better.

“I am optimistic.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.