The focus is on defense as Iowa tries to snap Big Ten losing streak

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Fran McCaffery was ready for the question about his Iowa men’s basketball team and its unsightly defensive efforts.

Does it come down to desire and pride, as a couple of Hawkeyes have suggested after recent losses?

“Defense is a combination of things, and those are some of them,” McCaffery said Tuesday as he prepares his team for a 7 p.m. Thursday matchup at Illinois (FS1).

Both teams are searching for their first league win. But the Hawkeyes (9-9, 0-5 Big Ten Conference) are the one ranked dead last in points allowed, at 75 per game. They have surrendered 90-plus in their past two defeats.

McCaffery gave a long, reasoned answer on everything that goes into playing effective defense, starting with the strategic questions of how a team is going to play in transition, on ball screens, in man-to-man situations.

“It’s understanding how everything fits, and how you get in the right place positionally, and that starts with your feet,” McCaffery said.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, shown here in a Jan. 2 loss to Michigan, knows his team must give better defensive efforts than it has during an 0-5 start in Big Ten Conference play. The Hawkeyes are last in the league, averaging 75 points allowed per game.

Next is knowing the scouting report, and which opposing players are effective outside shooters and which prefer to drive.

Finally: “There’s obviously a number of different areas where you can break down. If you do play with incredible heart and determination and desire, you can overcome mistakes in those other areas just by your activity level,” McCaffery concluded.

The next test of that determination comes against an Illini squad that is 10-7 overall and 0-4 in league play. It’s a team that has been dealing with a flu bug this week, but one that also features the kind of guards that can hurt Iowa with their ability to penetrate.

“Very athletic team with tremendous power,” McCaffery said of Illinois, which is led by first-year coach Brad Underwood. “I haven’t seen them not be connected defensively. They really battle you and they make you beat them.”

Illinois is 9-1 at home this season, the lone loss coming in overtime against Maryland. Those Terrapins just beat the Hawkeyes 91-73 on Sunday in a game in which Iowa’s 3-point defense was very good (Maryland made only 4-of-17), but it couldn’t guard in the paint (30-of-43).

Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense at 43.7 and sixth at defending the 3-point arc at 33.2.

It’s been turnovers, coupled with poor transition defense, that have often doomed the Hawkeyes this season. They rank 13th in their 14-team league in turnover margin at minus-1.8. On Sunday, 17 Iowa turnovers became 21 Maryland points.

That suggests that Iowa isn’t able to effectively play at the pace it wants to, and opposing teams are aware of it. McCaffery, who wants his players to run a motion offense and gives them great freedom to do so, even acknowledged this after losses to Ohio State and Maryland.

“We sometimes quick-shoot the ball where maybe we need a longer possession or we have a guy who goes on his own when maybe that isn’t the wisest decision,” he said. “You want your guys to have the confidence to go make a play. Sometimes the best play is no play at all. Move the ball.”

McCaffery said those decisions are the hardest for basketball players to learn to make. He pointed to some instruction that assistant coach Kirk Speraw gave the Hawkeyes recently.

“We want you to be patient aggressive,” Speraw told them.

“Now think about that for a second,” McCaffery said. “It’s something we not only talk about, not only go through on the practice floor, but show film. We’ll even say, ‘Hey, what were you thinking about on this play? What was going through your head?’ Because I don’t want to say, ‘That was a stupid play.’ You can’t give them rules for everything. The game is not one that’s mechanical. It’s a free-flowing game that requires multiple decisions in a short period of time. And I think, ultimately, aggressiveness is the way to go. But sometimes that can lead to mistakes.”

So the key for Iowa is learning to be less aggressive on offense at times and more aggressive on defense always.

The question is whether the players can figure that out in time to salvage something positive from what has been a disappointing season so far.