Leistikow: Hawkeyes' loss to Indiana reveals significant program weakness

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Archie Miller responded to questions about his Indiana team’s 84-82 win Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, he unwittingly shined a light on one of the biggest issues with Iowa’s.

“I’m biased, I’m a guard,” Miller said. “But guards win, man. The best guard tandems and backcourts, they win games.”

A 5-foot-11 point guard at North Carolina State in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Miller understands that basketball remains a guard’s game. That's an adage that you’ll probably hear somebody say when March Madness ensues in less than a month.

Iowa's Nicholas Baer sits on the court after the Hawkeyes' 84-82 loss to Indiana at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018.

The Hawkeyes simply have too many forwards, and not enough play-making guards.

Indiana showed Saturday that having good guards matters.

Robert Johnson on Saturday tied an Indiana school record — think about that for a second — with nine 3-pointers. Fellow 6-foot-3 wingman Devonte Green made four.

The guard tandem combined for 13-for-17 accuracy (76.5 percent) from 3-point range and 47 points.

Comparatively, Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon had a rare poor shooting night (3-for-12, including a missed 3 that would’ve given the Hawkeyes the lead in the final seconds). And the Hawkeyes’ three shooting guards — Isaiah Moss, Maishe Dailey and Brady Ellingson — combined for as many turnovers (six) as shot attempts.

Coach Fran McCaffery was so disappointed with his backcourt play that he benched Moss (a starter) and was using 6-foot-7 forward Nicholas Baer during key stretches of the second half at the "2" (shooting guard) spot. Moss sat for the game's final 16 minutes, 35 seconds after playing 15 minutes in the first half.

“That team (with Baer at the ‘2’) was better defensively,” McCaffery explained. “And then I had to make a decision when we went back small, and I went with Maishe.”

McCaffery’s substitution patterns reveal that Bohannon (36 minutes) needs help in the backcourt. And although there’s definitely some on the way in the recruiting Class of 2018 — with one of the best guards in Iowa high school history, Joe Wieskamp, and Kentucky sharpshooter C.J. Frederick — that doesn’t help this year’s Iowa team.

A five-game slide leaves the Hawkeyes 12-17 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten Conference. Three of these five straight losses were blowouts on the road, two were close ones at home — against Michigan State and now Indiana — in which Iowa couldn’t create big baskets down the stretch.

Usually, the difference in close games boils down to guard play. It sure did Saturday.

That’s not a knock on Bohannon, who has been terrific throughout his sophomore season as the team’s lone point guard. And he seemed to recognize that, too, in a first half where Iowa had things cooking offensively.

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The Hawkeyes amazingly made their first 10 shot attempts; Bohannon assisted on six of those.

Dailey, Moss, Jack Nunge and Luka Garza all hit 3-pointers in the game’s early stages as Iowa built a 28-17 lead. Bohannon didn’t even score In that stretch, or at all in the first half.

“It’s tough to win a game when you don’t have all four or five guys scoring the ball, moving the ball,” Bohannon said afterward, pointing out why he attempted only three first-half shots. “I wanted to get a couple more shots for guys who had been struggling lately.”

The frustrating part, though, is that the Hawkeyes have been so generally ineffective from the "2" spot that opposing coaches can afford to throw more firepower at stopping Bohannon. That's what Michigan did, too, in Wednesday's 74-59 win.

Miller’s approach on Iowa’s second-leading scorer? “Make him be a ball handler rather than a shooter.”

It was a success, even though Bohannon wound up with 10 points and seven assists.

But Iowa failed to score after Tyler Cook’s two free throws tied it at 82-all with 1:50 to play. Three possessions followed, all empty.

So, about the need for guard play ...

I’ve heard the arguments about McCaffery’s poor roster construction, and that’s fair. The Hawkeyes came into this season with eight scholarship big men, all of whom McCaffery planned to play. When a good player such as Cordell Pemsl gets only 2:09 of action in the second half, you've got too many big men.

But part of the lack of guards in the program is because of transfers and health. Three guards (Brandon Hutton, Andrew Fleming and Christian Williams) have departed from the 2015 recruiting class.

Then Connor McCaffery, the coach’s son and a four-star guard out of Iowa City West, has only played four games while battling repeated medical issues.

There should be more roster balance next season, and Iowa is actively recruiting a point guard in the Class of 2019.

Until then? If I’m McCaffery, I give Dailey an extended chance the rest of the season and tell the 6-foot-7 lefty to be more aggressive on offense. Dailey is already one of the team’s most active players on defense, another area that obviously needs serious help.

“Coach (Kirk) Speraw and coach (Sherman) Dillard always point out shots I should’ve taken or pass up on, attempts to drive when I should be driving,” Dailey said after Saturday’s game, in which he attempted two shots (both made 3-pointers) in 13 minutes. “I’m just trying to move the needle a little bit every single game and just get more confidence in myself to take those shots.”

The Hawkeyes have two regular-season games left, then the Big Ten Tournament in New York City, with the first game now almost certain to be played Feb. 28.

If the Hawkeyes don't get a quick answer in the backcourt, their season won't even make it to March 1. That's March Sadness.

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.