Iowa must navigate Virginia's best-in-nation defense
The Iowa men’s basketball team is averaging 96 points per game this season.
But the question for the Hawkeyes on Friday is whether they will get even half of that number against the stingiest defense in the nation.
That would be No. 6 Virginia (4-0), an Elite Eight team a season ago and the primary purveyors of the so-called “Pack Line Defense.” The Cavaliers are allowing 38.8 points per game, first in the nation.
The teams will tip off at 6 p.m. at The Arena in Niceville, Fla., as part of the Emerald Coast Classic. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network. Iowa (3-1) will face either Providence College or Memphis on Saturday to conclude the tournament.
“That’s nothing new. Michigan State plays the same thing,” Hawkeyes guard Peter Jok said of the Pack Line, a variation of man-to-man intended to cut off driving lanes at the expense of allowing more outside shots.
“It’s going to be fun for us. It’s going to be another learning experience. I think we’re going to be ready for it and I think we’ve got a great chance to win.”
If so, it will rest on the shoulders of the 6-foot-6 Jok, the only healthy senior on Iowa’s roster. He has been an incredibly efficient scorer this season, leading the Big Ten Conference with an average of 24.3 points per game. He has scored an amazing 97 points in just 104 minutes as the Hawkeyes have run off three lopsided wins against lesser opposition while falling 91-83 to Seton Hall in their first big test of the season.
In that game, Jok reached career-highs in points (30) and rebounds (11), becoming only the fourth Iowa player in the past 20 years to reach those levels. Reggie Evans did it twice and Aaron Fuller once.
“He's got a real good pace to his game,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Jok. “He knows when to speed up, when to slow down, when to wait.
“I don't think he's hunting shots. I don't think he's being selfish at all.”
Virginia will test Iowa’s patience, as the first halfcourt team the Hawkeyes have seen this season. The Hawkeyes are averaging 29 3-point attempts per game, making 38.3 percent of them.
But the Cavaliers, playing at a slow pace, are allowing opponents to make only 25.3 percent of the 19 3-point attempts per game they have been able to launch. Shooting too soon can play right into Virginia’s hands.
“You want them to have that free and clear mind to pull if they are open, if they are a good shooter. You don't want them thinking about, ‘Oh, coach is going to be mad if I take this 3,’ because then they'll never make it. That's a fine line,” McCaffery said of reining in his long-range shooters.
“The only time I tell them to slow it down is when I'd say we take three quick 3s.”
Virginia also will test Jok’s leadership skills. The graduate of West Des Moines Valley High School knows that his young team relies on him for much more than scoring. He has been displeased with his defensive effort so far this season.
“I’ve definitely got to step up so the guys can follow me,” Jok said of a Hawkeye team that is allowing opponents to make 45 percent of their 3-pointers while also surrendering 35.5 points in the paint per game. Virginia is making 60.6 percent of hits two-point shot attempts.
“Our main thing for us to be successful this year is defense, and it’s got to start with me.”