Iowa men's basketball is changing defensively. Here's what to expect in the season opener and beyond.
A lot of the questions surrounding Iowa's 2021-22 men's basketball team have been about offensive production. But the Hawkeyes themselves have emphasized defense over the last few weeks.
Senior center Filip Rebraca stated after Friday's exhibition against Slippery Rock that "getting up in people's space" has been an area of emphasis in practice. The beginning of the first and second halves illustrate how the Hawkeyes used defense to start on a good note:
First five minutes of first half against Slippery Rock (starters):
- Two forced turnovers (scored off both)
- Held SRU to 1-of-9 shooting
- 18-2 Iowa run
Frist five minutes of the second half (bench):
- Three forced turnovers
- Held SRU to 0-of-5 shooting, allowed 0 offensive rebounds
- 12-0 Iowa run
There wasn't a particular moment in practice that sparked this defensive emphasis. It's more about using the speed and length on the team. It showed in the exhibition and the Hawkeyes are looking to carry that momentum into their regular-season opener on Tuesday night at home against Longwood.
"We've got a lot of guys that can play," coach Fran McCaffery said. "So if we're making substitutions and those guys are fresh, then I think you have to apply defensive pressure. If you're playing the same six or seven guys for 40 minutes, as much as you want the same pressure, the reality is they're not going to be able to apply the same way as if they're rested."
The first player defensively that comes to mind is sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who had two blocks against Slippery Rock. The flashes he showed on defense last season are the main reason why the 6-foot-9 wing is a projected first-round NBA draft pick.
But McCaffery and players acknowledge that effective defense starts at point guard. Starter Joe Toussaint and backup Ahron Ulis have shown their defensive potential in reserve spots, but a larger role allows Iowa to play a different way.
"One thing we really look for out of Joe and Ahron is to pressure the ball full court," Murray said. "Whether that's picking up full court or just pressuring at half court, them doing that will affect the other team in setting their offense up."
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McCaffery noted that beyond his point guards there has to be buy-in from the other players to continue the pressure. Fans saw a glimpse of that against Slippery Rock and it should continue against Longwood.
Like Slippery Rock, Longwood is a team made up of guards and forwards without a true center. Its biggest player is Leslie Nkereuwem at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds. A similar mismatch means we'll likely see a continuation of small-ball lineups for long stretches of the game.
The Lancers are a significant step up in talent from Division II Slippery Rock.
"You'll see (small ball) a lot, not just necessarily for this game," McCaffery said. "I think in terms of matchup size-wise, we could go with a smaller lineup if we wanted to and wouldn't have to play our 5 men as much, but at the same time you want to get those guys some opportunity and experience, as well."
The combination of an athletic roster and defensive pressure allowed Iowa to play at a fast pace against Slippery Rock. Iowa scored 27 points off turnovers and 36 points in transition. When the other team turns it over or misses, the Hawkeyes are looking to capitalize and score immediately.
The early schedule for Iowa hardly compares to its rigorous Big Ten Conference schedule (where Iowa ranked 11th in team defense last year) but establishing the defensive mindset, confidence in the system and good habits now is critical. Setting the tone against Longwood is top priority.
"Our style of defense is really unique compared to past years," Murray said. "There's more pressure on the ball and I think that's beneficial to our style of play and team. We have a lot of versatile guys, we're able to fly around, press a little more and get up on guys."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.