Leistikow: Fran McCaffery has regrets after Iowa's loss to Ohio State. Time to learn from them.

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

What was Fran McCaffery thinking by not using two of his best defensive players in a game that Iowa desperately needed defense?

We’ll get to that. But let’s start with an acknowledgment that there’s never one thing that decides a two-hour college basketball game. And, no, the sky is not falling for the eighth-ranked Iowa basketball team after Thursday night’s 89-85 home loss to No. 9 Ohio State.

However, the ceiling might be getting lower if Iowa keeps playing defense like this.

When Luka Garza stepped to the top of the key and buried a 25-footer with 14 minutes, 29 seconds remaining to give Iowa a 61-50 lead, it sure felt like the Hawkeyes were on their way to their seventh win against a top-10 opponent in the 11-year McCaffery era. ESPN announcers Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas were gushing over Garza and the high-powered Hawkeyes.

“We say 'Wooden Watch,'” Bilas said after that 3, which was Iowa’s 11th in 19 tries to that point. “And what that really means is the other candidates for the Wooden Award are going to be there to watch Luka Garza get it. Because he’s going to get the award, as long as he stays healthy the rest of the season.”

For subscribers:Postgame Podcast: No. 9 Ohio State 89, No. 8 Iowa 85

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) reacts after making a 3-point basket during  the second half of a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game against Ohio State, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

More:What we learned from Iowa's loss to Ohio State

More:Iowa basketball sharpshooter CJ Fredrick misses Ohio State game as leg injury lingers

But right after that, Iowa went cold. Ohio State got hot. And Iowa’s defense was brutal.

After that Garza 3, he didn’t score again. The nation's leading scorer went 0-for-5 from the floor and didn’t shoot a free throw the rest of the way.

After that Garza 3, Iowa went 3-for-13 from 3-point range.

And after that Garza 3, Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes would score on 17 of 22 possessions — including seven 3-point makes — to score 38 points in just over 11 minutes. They turned an 11-point deficit into an 88-81 lead with 2:39 to go.

Even if Carver-Hawkeye Arena had a full house of fans for this top-10 showdown, it would’ve been shocked into frustrated silence at that point.

I re-watched all seven Ohio State 3-pointers during that 38-20 run to see what happened with Iowa’s zone-heavy defense. It was especially troubling that the two 3-point threats Iowa had circled on the scouting report drained five of the 3s.

Duane Washington Jr. dropped in two quick ones to pull Ohio State to within 61-57. On the second, an apparent miscommunication between Connor McCaffery and Jack Nunge gave the high-volume 3-point shooter a wide-open look. He made Iowa pay.

Then, Justin Ahrens — who lit up Iowa for 29 points two years ago in Columbus — swished three in the final minutes to crush the Hawkeyes’ hopes. Ahrens first one came after he juked Jordan Bohannon, then stepped to his left for an easy look. His next also was over Bohannon. His last was against Connor McCaffery. Credit to Ohio State, it buried four crunch-time 3s on four straight possessions in a span of 1:37.

“Great defenses communicate,” Bohannon said afterward. “I think our communication is kind of lacking on that end of the floor. We’ve done it before. We’ve done it against Purdue, we’ve done it against North Carolina.

“It takes all five guys out there to create a good defensive team. We have three to four guys talking in the zone, and there might be one guy that’s not being as vocal as they should be. … Because it’s hard to see everything in the zone, from the posts to the guards.”

Fran McCaffery reacts during the Hawkeyes' 89-85 loss at home to Ohio State.

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That was an indicting comment. If Iowa has players failing to communicate on defense, those players shouldn’t be on the court — especially when Iowa was up 11 with a chance to secure its best win of the 2020-21 season.

But, Fran McCaffery failed to turn to two of his most willing (and quick) defensive players in guards Joe Toussaint and Tony Perkins. It was as if McCaffery had dismissed what we learned two nights earlier against Michigan State, when Toussaint and Perkins were instrumental in getting in shooters' space. They helped slow Michigan State’s early hot shooting (started 6-for-6 from 3, went 6-for-23 after that) and provided jolts of offense, too.

Instead, this felt like a classic overcorrection — that McCaffery was making up for benching Bohannon, Connor McCaffery and Joe Wieskamp for a significant portion of that second half against Michigan State. Toussaint wound up playing just 6½ minutes Thursday, and he and Perkins played just 21 seconds in the second half — in the desperate final minute when McCaffery needed defensive stops.

“Bohannon (who tied Nunge with a team-high 18 points) was playing really well. I wanted to leave him out there,” McCaffery said. “I kind of went with my veteran guys in this game. In retrospect, I probably should have gone to those guys for a few minutes and given those other guys some rest.”

Yes, he should have. And he was already realizing that after the loss.

Bohannon and Wieskamp (17 points, 10 rebounds) played 19:39 in the second half. Garza (16 points, tying a season low) played 18:03, and he was slow to close out on a dagger Kyle Young 3 that pushed Ohio State’s lead to 85-79. Connor McCaffery (three points, 1-of-5 shooting) played 14:52 of the final 20 minutes.

Iowa guards Joe Toussaint (1) and Tony Perkins (11) defend as teammate Ahron Ulis, foreground right, covers Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. during a NCAA Big Ten Conference men's basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

It’s not like Toussaint did anything egregious to get benched. He had two points and an assist in six first-half minutes. He and Perkins just didn’t get a chance to slow down the Buckeyes, who matched Iowa’s excellent offensive night by raining in 14 of 32 3-point tries (44%).

We’ve seen how Toussaint and Perkins can provide sparks while also giving rest to the starters. Plus, Iowa was already short-handed without CJ Fredrick again. Bohannon and Wieskamp denied that fatigue was a factor in this one. But they aren’t going to publicly say otherwise. Maybe those late close-outs on defense are more decisive if their legs are fresher.

McCaffery knows he made a mistake. He referenced that in a later answer, too. He said he would talk to Toussaint and Perkins about it.

“Yeah. We’ll have conversation,” McCaffery said. “I have no doubt those guys will be ready on Sunday.”

This was not a bad loss. But it was a loss that should have been a high-quality, important win.

There were other things to lament Thursday, too.

Iowa needs to shore up its free-throw shooting. It has missed way too many front ends of one-and-ones lately. Garza is 11-for-21 from the line in Iowa's last three games. Oof.

The fact that Iowa also blew a nine-point, second-half lead at home against Indiana (to lose by 12) is a troubling reminder, too.

When Iowa needed a bucket late Thursday, it struggled to get one. That was a common theme in last Friday’s loss to Illinois, too.

The best thing McCaffery and Iowa (13-5 overall, 7-4 Big Ten) can do now is make sure Thursday’s mistakes don't happen again. Like, when you get an 11-point lead … expand your commitment to defense. It's rarely a bad idea to play your best defensive players.

A revenge game Sunday at Indiana (11 a.m., Fox) is next. A win in Assembly Hall would be a nice way to respond and finish a 2-1 week.

"We can’t get casual on defense when we take a lead,” Nunge said, speaking generally. “We’ve got to bury them."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.