Leistikow: 2 suggestions for Fran McCaffery, Hawkeyes after another Big Ten loss
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Seventeen games into the Iowa basketball season, and it’s time for major changes.
It might be past time.
But, clearly, this Hawkeye team is going fast in the wrong direction.
Careless turnovers. A disconnected defense. A no-consistency offense.
As anyone who has watched this 9-8 team lately knows, that’s just the start of the list.
And after Thursday’s 92-81 home loss to Ohio State, something different must be done.
The current approach, the one that has led to an 0-4 Big Ten Conference start — including 0-3 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which is becoming more listless by the day — is ineffective.
There are less than 72 hours until Iowa’s next game, Sunday at Maryland, the first of three in a row on the road. With that in mind, let’s keep it simple.
I’ve got two friendly suggestions for eighth-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. And they actually go hand-in-hand, so it’s more like one:
Slow down the pace.
And play some (dang) defense.
I’m not wild about playing 11 guys; I'd prefer eight or nine. But if that’s a deal-breaker, fine: Play 11 guys.
However, if you’re going to use those 11 guys, give them each a singular primary mission for the remaining 14 Big Ten games: Play your butt off defensively.
Or else you're sitting on the bench.
Hawkeye players need to harness the energy they showed in the first 3 minutes of the second half — when they turned a 46-32 halftime deficit into 46-41 — for 40.
That’s the kind of defensive intensity that led Ohio State first-year coach Chris Holtmann to say afterward: “They just really came at us, and we did not handle that very well. At all.”
Imagine if a coach would say that about Iowa's defense for 40 minutes instead of 3? Or even 30 to 35?
The Buckeyes, picked 11th in the Big Ten preseason media poll, ended up shooting 53 percent, committing only nine turnovers and scoring 92 points.
BUT ... to my pleasant surprise, McCaffery hit on one of the causes in his postgame press conference.
"We can change a lot of things (defensively)," he said. "It starts with maybe some longer possessions on offense to make sure that we get a great shot.”
Too many times against Ohio State (and in Iowa’s previous seven losses), an out-of-control offense led to out-of-position defense.
Thursday, that meant stretches of Thursday's game that looked like an Ohio State layup drill or 3-point shooting contest. The Buckeyes shot better than 60 percent for much of the first half, when their lead swelled to 17 points.
Again, I say: Slow it down.
I know, I know … that goes counter to McCaffery’s fast-paced style. And I don’t advise going to a Dick (or Tony) Bennett style and run the shot clock below 5 seconds every possession. Just be more deliberate.
And, hey, if you get way behind as you have been most of Big Ten play — Iowa has led for only nine of 160 game minutes so far — you can always activate the run-and-gun in comeback situations.
But playing slower means playing with more control. In Iowa’s seven games against Power Five opponents, it's averaging a staggering 16 turnovers. (On the plus side: Thursday's 11 were a step in a cleaner direction.)
Playing slower means time to get back on defense. It means limiting possessions, shortening the game.
This Iowa team clearly isn’t flush with the athleticism it needs to contend in the Big Ten. Jordan Bohannon is a fine player, but he’s Iowa’s only point guard — and he’s probably best suited to be a shooting guard.
Playing slower means Bohannon, who had 10 assists Thursday, can play more minutes.
It might keep your best player, Tyler Cook, out of foul trouble. Cook sat for 7 key minutes in Thursday's ill-fated first half after picking up a second at the 14:49 mark. (Kudos to McCaffery for at least bringing him back at the under-8 timeout.)
And most importantly, playing slower means you’ve got fresher legs to bring improved defensive intensity.
The energy needs to be there defensively, 100 percent of the time.
Occasional defense doesn't win championships.
“It’s just a matter of continuing to sustain that effort," Nicholas Baer correctly said afterward.
I asked Cook how to do that.
"Not taking plays off," he said. "Staying lively, whenever they go on a run."
This is a common trait of many McCaffery teams, especially the young ones. The defense shows up, then it goes away.
Iowa ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense last year; it’s last again this year and probably will stay there if this keeps up.
Wisconsin, a program I’d put on par with Iowa’s in athleticism, hasn’t finished in the top four of the Big Ten for 16 straight seasons by letting defensive principles slide.
Tom Izzo hasn't taken Michigan State to seven Final Fours without making defense a program cornerstone.
A prominent, recent former Hawkeye recently said in his four years under McCaffery, they rarely practiced defense.
That’s hard to believe.
But I believe him.
This Iowa team has a high-potential nucleus that next year will welcome top-40 national recruit Joe Wieskamp, who was watching here Thursday alongside Iowa commit Patrick McCaffery and 2019 classmate and elite point-guard target D.J. Carton of Bettendorf.
Cook has shown he can be a monster in the paint.
Bohannon’s outside shooting stroke is dangerous. Isaiah Moss’ can be.
There’s loads of potential in new big men Luka Garza and Jack Nunge.
All of them are sophomores or younger.
To his credit, McCaffery isn't using youth as an excuse for his worst Big Ten start since his first season here.
"We have enough experience, in my opinion, to be playing better than we’re playing," he said.
But they aren't taught or seasoned enough to play tough defense.
And even if a defense-prioritized approach doesn’t pay off immediately, an emphasis on this all-important area could benefit this team next season ... and the season after that.
And let’s face it: Without a sudden change, the current season will soon be a lost cause.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.