Leistikow: Surging Hawkeyes have gotten serious about defense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — “Three stops” is a common mantra that Iowa basketball players often tell each other during games, an ongoing goal to hold the opponent scoreless for three consecutive possessions.

While Fran McCaffery’s teams are more typically known for fast-paced offense, this group cares about playing good defense, too. And there’s an increasingly evident defensive edge developing in these surging Hawkeyes.

Down to an eight-man rotation with a rash of season-ending injuries, McCaffery is seeing all eight as willing defenders.

"It starts at the point of attack. I think (freshman guard) Joe Toussaint has been a part of that. But I think the back end is really important," McCaffery said. "I think Luka Garza's defense this year is something not anybody talks about, but it's been very good. He protects the rim in a lot of ways, and so does (Ryan) Kriener and (Cordell) Pemsl, when he's in there.

"There's a level of toughness with Joe Wieskamp and Connor (McCaffery) and CJ (Fredrick) that is critical, especially coming down the stretch. I think Bakari as a senior veteran guy also understands that."

Iowa's eight-man rotation (including Joe Wieskamp, left, and Luka Garza) has bought in defensively, and it's showing up at the end of games.

In other words, while Iowa’s current five-game winning streak has entailed exciting finishes and gaudy offensive numbers, don’t discount the D.

The Jan. 10 win against Maryland that kicked off this run from 1-3 in Big Ten Conference play to 6-3 was built around holding the Terrapins to 32.7% shooting and 49 points — their lowest total in a conference game since joining the league six years ago.

Lost in the happy Jan. 14 story of Fredrick’s return from a foot injury, Iowa’s 75-62 win at Northwestern was built around a defense that allowed just 39% shooting on 2-pointers.

But where Iowa’s defense has refreshingly shined is down the stretch of the last three home wins.

When the going's gotten tough, the defense has gotten going.

Iowa trailed by six before finishing the 90-83 win against Michigan with a 22-9 run, in which the Wolverines shot 3-of-10 from the floor with two turnovers in the final 7:44.

Iowa fell behind Rutgers by one, then didn’t allow a basket in the final 2:25 to finish on a 9-3 run for an 85-80 victory.

Finally, Monday’s rousing 68-62 comeback victory against Wisconsin was centered around pressure defense. Iowa trailed, 57-45, before ending the game on a 23-5 run in the final 7:13. The biggest momentum-turning play in that run was a steal and subsequent three-point play from the scrappy Toussaint.

“Everyone bought in to just getting stops,” Fredrick said afterward. “I think you saw the last eight minutes a lot of grit, a lot of toughness, a lot of getting after it on the defensive end.”

Combine those last three game-closing, game-winning finishes and here are the nutshell numbers: Iowa outscored its opponents, 54-17, while limiting them to 5-of-22 shooting from the floor, 6-of-10 from the foul line with six turnovers.

That’s a lot of good defense.

To be clear, this still isn't a great defense. The Hawkeyes’ adjusted defense, according to KenPom.com, ranked No. 77 in the country as of Tuesday. That is still third-worst in the Big Ten, BUT … it’s far better than the season-ending rankings of 123 (in 2016-17), 242 (in 2017-18) and 111 (in 2018-19).

And look a little deeper, and in conference-only games Iowa’s adjusted defense ranks eighth in the Big Ten. Combine that with by-far the league’s best adjusted offense (Iowa ranks No. 3 nationally, with only Michigan State at No. 12 being the only other Big Ten team in the top 20), and now you’ve got something.

That something being a Big Ten title contender.

So, now a trip to Maryland.

Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network-televised game in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., matches a pair of top-20 teams tied for third place in the conference.

It’s a huge opportunity for the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (15-5, 6-3), who stole one here in 2017 behind a hot-shooting night from Jordan Bohannon. If they can get out of here with a sixth straight Big Ten win — something McCaffery’s achieved only twice in his 10-year Iowa tenure — they’ll have a season sweep of the 15th-rated Terps (16-4, 6-3).

Considering Iowa already has single-play wins against upper-division foes Rutgers and Wisconsin, it's building up a lot of tiebreakers for seeding at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. Iowa has tied for third twice under McCaffery, but both times ended up as a No. 5 seed after losing key tiebreakers. None of his Iowa teams have ever enjoyed a double-bye (top-four seed) at the Big Ten tourney.

That talk is premature, but it's worth monitoring as Thursday's Maryland game marks the halfway mark of the conference season.

The Terps surely will have revenge on its mind from that 18-point loss three Fridays ago in Iowa City, not to mention they're 11-0 at the Xfinity Center this season. Of Maryland's 20 games, it's only been beaten handily once — at Iowa. 

"They've been essentially unbeatable at home, and they've gotten two good road wins (at Northwestern and Indiana) since we played, them," McCaffery said. "They're a talented group. … You've got to defend them. If you try to outscore them and go toe-to-toe with them that way, they're pretty impressive."

Things will inevitably get rocky for Iowa. But when that happens, players can keep telling each other “three stops” — and know that they've gotten it done before in close games.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.