Brown: If Iowa can't fix offense, outlook is grim

Rick Brown
Iowa head basketball coach Fran McCaffery watched his team connect on just three field goals after halftime on Saturday.

On Iowa's second possession of the second half, a six-point lead still in its back pocket, guard Mike Gesell took a 3-pointer. It spun out.

And the Hawkeyes spun out of control shortly after in a 56-44 loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday in the Big Four Classic nightcap at Wells Fargo Arena.

You've got to give Northern Iowa's suffocating defense a high-five, to start with. The Panthers turned up the heat in impressive style. They made Iowa's motion offense look like it was operating in slow motion the final 20 minutes.

The Hawkeyes had just three field goals and 15 points the second half. Former Hawkeye guard Devyn Marble scored 30 points by himself the last time these teams met in the Big Four Classic two years ago. The 44 points were fewest ever by a Fran McCaffery-coached Iowa team, which covers 149 games.

"Move," McCaffery barked at his team as it tried to execute in the second half. "Move."

But the Panthers were a step ahead, blocking passing lanes and beating Iowa players to the spot.

Northern Iowa started playing downhill, its defense forcing Iowa to play uphill. Soon, it became a one-sided avalanche. And the Hawkeyes' disturbing trend of substandard second halves continued.

"Well, we didn't make shots," Iowa's Aaron White said. "That was apparent. And when the going got tough, we kind of went to one-on-one action."

It was the fewest points a Hawkeye team has scored since Todd Lickliter's final team lost 67-40 at Wisconsin in 2009-10. Three field goals in 24 attempts the second half. Zero for seven from 3. Ten turnovers to no assists the second half.

Zero chance to win with numbers like that.

"I think Aaron nailed it," McCaffery said. "They scored the first couple of hoops the second half, we started going a little one-on-one. We had a couple of really good looks at it. It's kind of been the story of our team. I didn't see a ton of horrendous shots, or insane plays."

The story of this team has become the gang that can't shoot straight.

Iowa entered the game ninth in the Big Ten in scoring (72.3 points a game), 13th in field goal percentage defense (.420) and 13th in three-point percentage (.303). Those averages will drop after 44 points and 27.5 percent shooting from the field.

McCaffery acknowledged his team is feeling the heat.

"Clearly, they're feeling pressure," he said.

After taking a 29-23 halftime lead, the Hawkeyes scored just one point in its first nine possessions of the closing half, and one field goal in the first 9 minutes and 15 seconds.

That's how you lose to a Northern Iowa team that got a taste of the top 25 two weeks ago and deserves to be back there this week. The Panthers are 10-1, and Wichita State is probably looking over its shoulder nervously with the Missouri Valley Conference season rapidly approaching.

Iowa dropped to 8-4. The Hawkeyes are now 1-4 against teams that are or were in the top 25 this season and currently have an RPI inside the top 100.

The Hawkeyes love to play up-tempo basketball, but Northern Iowa was able to make this a half-court game and limit Iowa's easy baskets. There were a lot of bad statistics on Iowa's side of the boxscore. But maybe the most shocking one was this: no fast-break points.

None. Zip. Zero.

The Panthers also kept Iowa off the foul line, another of its most productive ways to score. In the first 11 games of the season, Iowa had made more free throws (174) than its opponents had attempted (169). But the Hawkeyes attempted just six in the first 33-minutes plus of the game.

Add it all up, and it's painfully clear that McCaffery has his work cut out for him in the days and weeks ahead. He's got to find a way to get his team to score.

That's something I never thought I'd be saying about a coach who came to Iowa City with an offense-first reputation.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.