Brown: Iowa's Big Ten turnaround all about defense
IOWA CITY, Ia. – In the three seasons before Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni and Josh Oglesby arrived on campus, Iowa's basketball program won a total of 13 Big Ten games.
Four years later, Iowa wrapped up a 12-6 Big Ten season with a 69-52 victory over Northwestern.
"Amazing," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
The last time Iowa won 12 league games was the 1996-97 season. Aaron White was 4 years old at the time. But Saturday, after he said goodbye to sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena with his fourth straight 20-point-plus game, White reflected on the accomplishment.
"We did it at home, we did it on the road," White said. "We did it in multiple ways. But we always stuck to our identity, which is what I'm most proud of."
Iowa finished with identical 6-3 marks at home and the road in Big Ten play. Saturday was its sixth consecutive victory, the longest league winning streak since 1986-87 season.
What a far cry from a season ago, when Iowa lost seven of its last eight.
Although Iowa has more options offensively that it did a season ago, this turnaround starts and ends with defense. That's this team's newfound identity.
"Defense is all about energy and concentration," Jarrod Uthoff said. "We're playing as a team."
The numbers show an incredible flip of the coin when it comes to the Hawkeyes' effort defensively. In the last eight games last season, Iowa allowed an average of 80 points a game. During the current six-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes have allowed just 57.5 points.
"When you start peeling apart this year, we were all together," Uthoff said. "We're as close and confident as ever, and that's why we've won six in a row."
Last season, each of Iowa's final eight opponents shot at least 44.4 percent from the field. Four of them shot better than 50 percent. In Iowa's six-game run this season, no one has broken the 40 percent barrier.
"There's no question that has been the reason we have won six games in a row," McCaffery said of the defense. "It's probably the reason we won 21 games, too. We have been a better defensive team than we were last year. If you want to be a team that contends for a championship, you better play defense."
Iowa's season was teetering at 6-6 in the Big Ten after a 66-61 overtime loss at Northwestern on Feb. 15. That's about the time assistant coach Kirk Speraw brought some new terminology to the table: Three in a row.
"We talked about getting three in a row, meaning three stops in a row," guard Mike Gesell said. "That allows us to get on runs. We've been locked in lately, and playing well together."
Northwestern coach Chris Collins pointed to Iowa's length defensively — particularly White and Uthoff — and their ability to close passing lanes. He also mentioned the two-headed monster of Gabe Olaseni and Adam Woodbury in the post, and the ability of the guards to pressure the ball.
"On both ends, I think they're really playing well," Collins said. "I see a team that looks fresh, they look like they're having fun playing, and they look like they're poised to play really well here in the postseason."
The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments will provide the ultimate postscript for this season. But 12 Big Ten wins are already in the bank.
"One thing I try to do is leave situations better than when I found them," Olaseni said. "The seniors have definitely done that."
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.