How can Iowa men's basketball beat Penn State twice in 10 days? It starts with ball movement.
For the second time in less than 10 days, Iowa men's basketball will play the same opponent. On Jan. 22, Iowa (14-6, 4-5) defeated Penn State (8-9, 3-6) by a dominating 68-51 margin in their first home sellout of the season. On Monday, the Hawkeyes will travel to State College, Pennsylvania for the rematch.
Head coach Fran McCaffery said via zoom on Sunday that there's not much information gained on an opponent in that short of a time to drastically impact the game. The greatest difference is playing on the road, where Penn State holds a 6-3 home record. But there is one redeeming quality that the Hawkeyes will emphasize entering Monday night: ball movement.
Iowa ranks fourth in the Big Ten in assists per game (16.15). Nationally, they're among the nation's best in assist-to-turnover ratio, however during this recent stretch, they've struggled offensively due to lack of ball movement. In their Jan. 19 loss to Rutgers, the Hawkeyes only managed eight assists. Their Thursday night loss to Purdue produced a similar result, with 10 assists.
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Iowa recorded 15 assists in their first meeting with Penn State, which translated to shooting 41% from the field compared to a combined 33% in their two, recent losses.
"We have not done a good job of moving the ball," McCaffery said. "We're going a little bit too much one-on-one, the ball is sticking more than it should. And that's not how we play. Those are some of the things we're talking about."
There's a few factors that've contributed to their recent struggles. On one end, it's how opposing defenses attack the Hawkeyes' offense. Rutgers muddied the game up with their physical style. Throughout the game, they beat Iowa to their desired spots on the court, which disrupted their sets and took away cutting opportunities to the basket.
Games like Purdue, where Iowa trailed in large quantities throughout, are a different case. McCaffery noted after the game and reiterated Sunday that large deficits can force players to take a more individual approach.
"I think our calling card is we move and share the ball," McCaffery said. "But when you fall behind and you feel like your team needs a basket, sometimes it's 'I'm going to go get one.' For us, it's not one or two guys, it's a lot of different people trying to do that. We have to be more ball movement conscious."
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A win over Penn State would get Iowa back to .500 in Big Ten play and a 5-3 overall finish in January. If they're going to continue to push for an NCAA Tournament selection, better ball movement leading to more open shots will be critical.
Through nine conference games, Iowa's the worst three-point shooting team in the conference at 30.1%, compared to last season's first-place finish, at 40.5%. They know that mark is unsustainable.
What's the key to returning to early season form? According to Kris Murray, a lot more activity by every player on the court.
"I'd say it's kind of moving without the ball," Kris Murray said after their loss to Purdue. "Getting more drive-and-kicks, more cuts to bring the defense in. We've been a little bit stagnant in our offense and I think that's why. We haven't been shooting well because a lot of the (shots) have been contested. That's what created a lot of open looks earlier in the season, and we just have to get back to that."
Starting center Filip Rebraca injured his ankle early on against Purdue limiting him to just 11 minutes. McCaffery said Rebraca is "fine" and expects him to play Monday.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.