Iowa takeaways: On an opportunity lost, 'stagnant' offense and 'spotty' defense

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — There was no lesson learned for the Iowa men’s basketball team from its lone Big Ten Conference win this season.

Any thought that the Hawkeyes could build on a strong second half at Illinois a week ago were quickly dispelled Wednesday when they came out timid against Rutgers and immediately fell behind by 17 points at the RAC.

Jan 17, 2018; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) goes to the basket against Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Issa Thiam (35) during first half at Louis Brown Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

This time, things never got better, and the result was a dreary 80-64 loss that left Iowa with a 1-6 record in league play and its first setback against a Scarlet Knights team that is better than it has been in recent years.

“Because we came back from down 20, that doesn’t mean we turned the corner. I mean, we were down 20,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of his team’s harder-than-it-needed-to-be victory over the Illini. “If you beat a team and you lead from start to finish, then maybe you’ve turned a corner. I thought we took a step. I thought it was important that we fought through a 20-point deficit and beat a team in overtime that made a huge shot at the end of regulation.

“But I don’t think you can look at one game and say we’ve turned a corner. You’ve got to put some games back-to-back before you can say you turned the corner.”

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It’s been that kind of season for Iowa (10-10), which seems to constantly be putting itself in a corner. One good stretch of play is inevitably followed by a poor one. And so it was again at Rutgers, which imposed its will defensively on the Hawkeyes and had an easy time scoring.

“I just think we didn’t play our best basketball,” Iowa junior forward Nicholas Baer said when asked if Wednesday’s loss represented a missed opportunity to pick up consecutive road wins against teams at the bottom of the conference standings. “I think that was evident.”

Nothing doing inside

Iowa averages 23 free-throw attempts per game, a sign of their commitment to getting the ball inside, where they typically have a size advantage.

But the Hawkeyes had zero attempts from the line in the first half Wednesday, at which time they trailed 38-24. They had only six points in the paint as well. Forward Tyler Cook scored Iowa’s first four points of the game, but had only two more in the half and finished with 10 total.

“We’ve got to take advantage of the bonus situation,” Cook said. “We know those guys are susceptible to fouls, so we’ve just got to bring it to the rim.”

Cook entered play averaging six free-throw attempts per game. He was held without one for only the second time this season, the other being last month’s loss at Indiana. It wasn’t because he was being passive. Cook attempted a game-high 15 shots.

“Our execution wasn’t good, and quite honestly our shot selection wasn’t good. We were shooting turnaround jumpers, running jumpers,” McCaffery said. “You’ve got to drive the ball. You’ve got to get the ball inside. You’ve got to make sure you’re in the bonus late. We settled, I thought. ... And you can’t do that, not when you’re behind.”

Iowa went 8-for-10 from the free-throw line in the second half, but six of those were by point guard Jordan Bohannon.

Offense summed up in a word

Baer and Cook had the same one-word description of the Hawkeyes’ offense: “stagnant.”

A team that relies on motion showed very little of it Wednesday, showing a reluctance to probe a stout Rutgers defense. The result: a mere 12 assists versus 17 turnovers.

“We got a lot of late shot-clock situations. They were doing a good job of being in passing lanes,” Bohannon said. “We didn’t have good spacing on some possessions, but a lot of that has to do with them being up into us and getting us uncomfortable.”

The Hawkeyes made only 39.3 percent of their shots (24 of 61), the fourth time this season they’ve been held below 40 percent. They’ve lost all of those games.

“I felt we tried to go a little too much one-on-one. That’s not who we are. We’ve got to get the ball moving,” McCaffery said. “We never really until the very end … looked comfortable offensively.”

The closest Iowa got in the second half was 68-58, after a Cook steal led to a Jack Nunge dunk with 2 minutes, 4 seconds remaining. It was the Hawkeyes’ only fast-break basket of the game. Rutgers responded with an 8-2 run.

“We took shots that normally go in, but we’ve got to adjust when they don’t go in,” Cook said.

Added Baer: “We knew they were going to try to pressure us, try to get into us. But we were confident in our guard play, how we were going to run our sets coming into the game, and unfortunately we weren’t able to get it done. Rutgers played more physical than we did.”

That’s not a good sign, with No. 3 Purdue next on Iowa’s schedule for an 11 a.m. Saturday home game.

Bohannon heats up

Bohannon perked up when Rutgers brought in backup guard Souf Mensah early in the game with an 11-4 lead. The Big Ten’s most prolific 3-point shooter immediately drained a pair of them and got Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell’s attention. Mensah never played again.

Bohannon then hit one more from the arc to provide a short-lived 13-11 lead. He finished with 23 points, including 5-for-9 on 3-pointers.

“I thought my shot was going pretty well and guys were finding me,” said Bohannon, who also had four turnovers and just two assists. “I’ve got to be better next game, and I know everyone around me has to be better as well.”

Jan 17, 2018; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes point guard Jordan Bohannon drives to the basket against Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Geo Baker (0) during first half at Louis Brown Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

McCaffery praised Bohannon’s performance, but offered some guidance for his sophomore floor leader.

“Sometimes he’s got to keep his dribble a little longer than what it looks like he should. But he’ll pull and he’ll find people,” McCaffery said. “He maybe had a couple of opportunities to pitch it to the rim, because they were staying up on ball-screen action and containing him. So that’s pretty much what he’ll see all year.”

Bohannon, a focal point of every opposing defense, is averaging 23.5 points while playing 35.5 minutes in his past four games.

Defense sags again

The word Cook offered for Iowa’s defense was “spotty.”

“Guys beat us off the dribble. Help was a step or two too late,” he said of the continuing problems for the Hawkeyes on that side of the ball.

Iowa made Rutgers look like a competent offensive outfit, which the Scarlet Knights assuredly are not.

Rutgers entered play shooting 40.8 percent from the field and just 29.6 percent on 3-pointers. The Scarlet Knights made six of 10 3s in the first half. In the second half, they pushed the ball into the paint and were 12-for-16 on 2-pointers. Rutgers needed only 22 field-goal attempts to score 42 second-half points.

Jan 17, 2018; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Corey Sanders (3) drives to the basket against Iowa Hawkeyes forward Cordell Pemsl (35) during second half at Louis Brown Athletic Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers was coming off a game in which it shot 29 percent against Ohio State, one of nine games it’s been held below 40 percent. Against Iowa, that percentage was 53.7, by far its best showing in league play.

Big Ten teams are now shooting 49.2 percent against Iowa, including 41.4 percent from the 3-point arc. It’s no wonder the Hawkeyes have been outscored by 62 points in seven conference games.

“They were open 3s. They’re good players, and they’re going to make open shots,” Cook said of Rutgers. “We didn’t do a good enough job, especially in the first half, of making them make tough shots.”

If a single quote can sum up an entire season, that might be the one for Iowa.