Takeaways: Defense and rebounding dog Hawkeyes again
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The fundamental problem that would dog the Iowa basketball team all year was revealed the first time the Hawkeyes faced a top-tier opponent.
“I would like to have seen us play better defense collectively for the duration, but certainly in the second half,” Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery said that night. “We went to the press, we went to a zone, and we just didn’t perform to the level that’s necessary.”
That quote was after a 91-83 loss to Seton Hall on Nov. 17, when the Pirates made 65.5 percent of their second-half shots.
After all the good and bad that happened in between — one four-game and two three-game losing streaks, winning streaks of five, four and three games — it was the same sad refrain Thursday for McCaffery and his Hawkeyes.
Indiana made 60.3 percent of its shots to oust Iowa from the Big Ten Tournament at the Verizon Center in a second-round matchup. It was the worst defensive showing of the season for Iowa and resulted in a 95-73 loss that all but extinguished any faint NCAA Tournament hopes.
“The way we played (Thursday) is the way we were playing earlier in the year, and that’s why we were struggling,” McCaffery said afterward. “I thought we really figured it out and really got locked in, defensively, and really played connected at both ends.”
Iowa did that during the four consecutive victories heading into the tournament. But not when it mattered most.
And so a season that dawned with predictions of inconsistency and a potential spot in the National Invitation Tournament ended up becoming just that. With six freshmen on the roster, and four new starters, Iowa provided moments that were thrilling (wins over Iowa State, Purdue, Maryland and Wisconsin) and puzzling (losses to Memphis, Nebraska-Omaha and getting swept by Illinois).
The Hawkeyes will carry an 18-14 record into the NIT, hoping to make another run to Madison Square Garden. In the meantime, some more takeaways from the stinging loss to the 10th-seeded Hoosiers:
Jok, Baer can't get on track
Iowa’s two leaders this season have been senior guard Peter Jok and sophomore sixth man Nicholas Baer. Both had unusually quiet outings Thursday, and the Hawkeyes couldn’t overcome it.
Jok shot 23 free throws when Iowa beat Indiana in overtime Feb. 21. On Thursday, four of Indiana’s first five fouls were called on players trying to guard Jok. But he never got to the line and was never a factor in the second half, when Indiana took control.
Jok attempted only four shots after intermission, making one. He also had four second-half turnovers. He finished with nine points, 11 below his league-best average.
“I kind of got tired at the end and it got a little sloppy,” Jok said.
Baer was actually the seventh man for Iowa on Thursday, entering a minute after Cordell Pemsl. His first two shot attempts were way off the mark, and he played only 7 first-half minutes. His only points came on a 3-pointer with 1:55 left.
It was a startlingly passive outing for a player who usually has such a big impact on games. The team’s leading rebounder this season was held without one for the first time.
Both Jok and Baer said there was nothing physically wrong with them Thursday. Both credited Indiana’s defense for making things tough.
“You know they’re going to guard him a certain way,” McCaffery said of Jok. “He had a couple looks that normally would go in. They didn’t go in. We were going to him.”
Bench doesn't produce
McCaffery used 12 players Thursday, in keeping with his usual practice. But only Pemsl and Baer saw extended minutes. Pemsl had 14 points and 11 rebounds in a fantastic game. Baer didn’t play up to his usual standard.
McCaffery had a much shorter leash with his usual array of subs. Junior forward Dom Uhl played 4 first-half minutes and never got back in. Sophomore guard Brady Ellingson saw just 2 minutes of playing time. Backup point guard Christian Williams was in for 3 minutes, although McCaffery said that was for health reasons.
“Christian wasn’t feeling great with his back. He had a funny look on his face. He was not right. He wasn’t right when I put him in in the first half. I didn’t go back to him,” McCaffery said.
“I didn’t go back to Brady because Isaiah (Moss) was playing so well. I wanted to give him some more minutes. Everybody else played who normally plays. I always feel bad when I don’t give Dom more minutes. Again, when you get behind, you’re trying to get more offense on the floor.”
The Hawkeyes were outscored 35-17 off the bench Thursday. They had averaged 31.3 bench points during their four-game win streak.
Beaten on the boards
Nothing went right for Iowa in the second half Thursday, but one of the most glaring issues was rebounding. The teams were tied in that statistic at halftime. In the second half, Indiana grabbed a 19-10 advantage as the Hawkeyes collected only one offensive rebound on 16 missed shots.
“We were quick-shooting the ball with nobody on the glass, and they weren’t going in,” McCaffery said.
“We can’t get outrebounded. We went on a run by outrebounding our opponent. I thought we learned that up at Michigan State. We go up there, we’re up one at halftime. We get outrebounded by 14. You’re not beating Michigan State on the road getting outrebounded by 14. That’s just the reality. But sometimes you’ve got to go through that and you’ve got to learn it and you’ve got to feel the pain.”
The last word
Jok conceded that Iowa’s defense was subpar Thursday. But he also took the opportunity to rave about Indiana’s offense, which eclipsed the 90-point mark for the 10th time this season. Indiana was the only lower seed to win in the four Big Ten games Thursday.
“You can say our defense wasn’t great. We knew it wasn’t great,” Jok said.
“But at the same time, they were hot. They made some tough shots. When they had that 15-point lead they were just comfortable and they got in a groove. The way they played (Thursday), they’re one of the best teams in the country. If they shoot like they shot (Thursday) and their bigs play like they played (Thursday), I think they can win the whole thing.”