The junior forward says ‘the defense softened’ when shots stopped falling. Mark Emmert / The Register
Fran McCaffery is surprised that his Iowa basketball team has plummeted to the bottom of the Big Ten Conference in defense.
The Hawkeyes enter Wednesday’s 5:30 p.m. game at No. 21 Michigan last in the 14-team league in defensive efficiency (119.5 points per 100 possessions), effective field goal percentage allowed (57.6) and in 3-point percentage allowed (42.2). Those rankings come via Ken Pomeroy’s analytics.
The truth has become obvious to anyone watching the Hawkeyes play. The team is 12-15 overall, 3-11 in Big Ten games, because it rarely can stop opponents from scoring at will. Six rivals have produced season-high point totals in conference games against Iowa.
“We weren’t a great defensive team last year. We were better than we are this year,” McCaffery said Tuesday.
“I thought with our size and our length, we’d be better than we are.”
The Hawkeyes are the eighth-tallest team in Division I, and first in the Big Ten. But that placement hasn’t translated into strong defense — not in the paint, but particularly on the perimeter.
And that doesn’t bode well for the matchup with the Wolverines (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten), who rank second in the conference in 3-point makes per game at 9.1 and punished Iowa with 11 treys in a 75-68 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 2.
Last winter, with senior shooting guard Peter Jok available to help, Iowa ranked eighth in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage allowed at 35.1. The Hawkeyes were 10th in overall efficiency at 106.1 points per 100 possessions.
Jok is missed. But that’s no excuse, and McCaffery knows it.
He said he is devoting more time in practice to defensive drills these days, still trying — 27 games into the season — to find a solution to what ails his team.
“You’ll go back to the fundamentals of it, whether it be stance, positioning, scrambling. We’ve done all of that, in particular recently,” McCaffery said. “Because all of that stuff is necessary, whether or not you play man or zone. … You still have to guard dribble penetration. You still have to rotate onto shooters. You still have to position yourself and box out.”
McCaffery made one change to his starting lineup for Saturday’s 82-64 loss at Ohio State, inserting Ahmad Wagner for Nicholas Baer at small forward. He said Tuesday that Baer, who was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year last winter, will continue to come off the bench, but that it won’t necessarily be the little-used Wagner continuing to start. A better bet would be freshman Jack Nunge, who is coming off a career-high 18-point effort.
McCaffery said his best defensive team in eight seasons at Iowa featured guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons applying pressure at the 3-point arc, knowing that 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury was positioned behind them, ready to protect the rim. Two years ago, that team led the Big Ten in 3-point percentage allowed at 31 and was fifth in overall efficiency at 101.2 points per 100 possessions.
This year’s team doesn’t have ball-hawking guards to defend the perimeter or anyone inside that makes opponents think twice about driving.
Freshman center Luka Garza, at 6-11, leads the Hawkeyes in blocked shots with 30, but only nine of them have come in Big Ten games. He’s not ready to pick up Woodbury’s mantle in that aspect yet, McCaffery acknowledged.
“Woodbury was probably the best post defender I’ve ever been around,” McCaffery said. “Woodbury had an unbelievable feel for how to play this game and an incredible commitment to winning. And he knew what he had to do to maximize his skill set.”
That included grabbing defensive rebounds and initiating fast breaks.
“Luka can do that, because he’s a big-time rebounder (6.4 per game),” McCaffery said. “But the defensive side of it, he’s learning. And I think he can get there, but he’s not there yet.”
In the meantime, Big Ten teams are shooting over the Hawkeyes or dribbling through them with little fear that someone will get in their way.
“A lot of times, for a good portion of a possession, we’re doing everything right. And at some point … we’re a little bit late on a rotation,” McCaffery said. “Those things have been happening to us, and that’s what we’re working on.”
It’s probably too late for this season. But it’s something Iowa will need to get figured out before the next one. Or continue to pay the price.