Back in December of 2015, Fight for Iowa examined the one thing that was preventing Iowa from becoming a great team under Fran McCaffery: close games. At the time, Iowa was fresh off a heartbreaking 83-82 loss to Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum, a game that the Hawkeyes led 82-74 with 2:36 remaining on the clock. That was only one of the three close losses that Iowa had suffered up to that point. There was the 82-77 loss to Dayton in the first round of the AdvoCare Invitational and the 68-62 loss to Notre Dame in the consolation round. This was also the season that Iowa lost a close exhibition game to Augustana but we’re not going to talk about that.
What is a close game? For our purposes, it’s a game that finishes with a margin of six points or less. As of December 15th, 2015, Fran McCaffery had a record of 15-34 in games decided by six points or fewer. That’s a 30.6 winning percentage. Not good, Bob.
So, how has Iowa fared since that time? Well, let’s go year by year.
Iowa actually followed up their crushing loss to Iowa State with a close 70-64 win over Drake in the Big Four Classic. There was an understandable close loss to #8 Maryland in College Park, a close call against Minnesota at Carver Hawkeye and then came the late season collapse. Iowa lost five of their final seven regular-season games and closed out Big Ten play with a humiliating loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament. Of those six losses, four were close games.
The good news is that Iowa actually won a close game when it really mattered, defeating Temple 72-70 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They closed out the season with a second-round loss to eventual national champion Villanova.
W, 70-64 vs Drake (12/19/15)
L, 74-68 vs Maryland (1/28/16)
W, 75-71 vs Minnesota (2/14/16)
L, 79-75 vs Penn State (2/17/16)
L, 68-64 vs Ohio State (2/28/16)
L, 81-78 vs Indiana (3/1/16)
L, 68-66 vs Illinois (3/10/16)
W, 72-70 (OT) vs Temple (3/18/16)
2015-2016 Close Games Record (Post-December 15th): 3-5
This was a strange season for close games as Iowa didn’t even play in one until New Year’s Day, where they beat Michigan 86-83 in overtime. They’d then play in three straight close games, finishing with an overall record of 3-1. Unlike the prior season, Iowa finished the regular season on a hot streak, winning their final four contests, including close games over Indiana and #22 Wisconsin. There was the typical Big Ten Tournament loss to a higher seed and a close loss to eventual NIT Champion TCU at Carver Hawkeye.
W, 86-83 (OT) vs Michigan (1/1/17)
L, 93-90 (2OT) vs Nebraska (1/5/17)
W, 68-62 vs Rutgers (1/8/17)
W, 83-78 vs Purdue (1/12/17)
L, 70-66 vs Illinois (2/18/17)
W, 96-90 (OT) vs Indiana (2/21/17)
W, 59-57 vs Wisconsin (3/2/17)
L, 94-92 (OT) vs TCU (3/19/17)
2016-2017 Close Games Record: 5-3
If you thought to yourself “Well, Iowa was so bad last year that they probably didn’t even play in any close games” I have really bad news for you. Not only did Iowa get blown out in a lot of their losses but they also lost every single close game they played in. There was the early season loss to Penn State, the failed comeback against Iowa State, the heartbreaker against Michigan State and the close losses to Indiana and Minnesota in February. Some of the close wins you might be thinking of like Colorado, at Illinois or the regular season finale against Northwestern were not within the six-point margin.
L, 77-73 vs Penn State (12/2/17)
L, 84-78 vs Iowa State (12/7/17)
L, 96-93 vs Michigan State (2/6/18)
L, 84-82 vs Indiana (2/17/18)
L, 86-82 vs Minnesota (2/21/18)
L, 77-71 (OT) vs Michigan (3/1/18)
2017-2018 Close Games Record: 0-6
Fran McCaffery’s Total Close Games Record: 23-47 (33%)
The good news: Iowa has gotten better in close games under Fran McCaffery!
The bad news: Iowa is still objectively really bad in close games under Fran McCaffery!
At the time, Fight for Iowa used Wisconsin as a comparison, noting that they were 31-22 (58.5%) in close games since McCaffery was hired. Since Bo Ryan has retired for not-at-all suspicious reasons, we’re gonna have to find someone else to compare to.
That’s somewhat difficult as the coaches that are longer tenured than McCaffery like Izzo, Painter and Beilein have been leaps and bounds better. Maryland hasn’t been elite under Turgeon but at least he has a winning conference record. Guys like Pitino, Chambers, and Collins have all been bad, with Pitino and Chambers owning a sub .400 winning percentage in conference. Collins actually checks in right at .400.
Unfortunately, the most comparable coach is Tim Miles, who holds an overall .500 winning percentage to Fran’s .558 and a Big Ten record of .426 to Fran’s .472. Since being hired at Nebraska in 2012, Miles has coached what feels like a relatively high number of close games: 58. Of those 58 close games, Nebraska has won 30 of them, good for a winning percentage of 51.8%.
Even if you look at close games as 50/50 proposition, I’d take it further and wager that on average, a team’s overall performance is comparable to their performance in close games. Wisconsin, a team that was historically impressive under Bo Ryan, won a good amount of close games. Nebraska, a team that is historically .500 under Tim Miles, has won around 50% of their close games. It’s not unreasonable to think that a below average team will probably be below average in close games, as well.
Iowa, then, is a statistical aberration.
In that same vein, I examined Iowa’s “Luck” under Fran McCaffery. KenPom defines Luck as:
…[t]he deviation in winning percentage between a team’s actual record and their expected record using the correlated Gaussian method. The luck factor has nothing to do with the rating calculation, but a team that is very lucky (positive numbers) will tend to be rated lower by my system than their record would suggest.
The correlated Gaussian method, as I understand it (amateur statistician here), is basically a curve. The method/formula plots the number of points that a team scores on the road and at home and creates an average (mean) number. This number is then used to predict the outcome of games.
So, KenPom’s “Luck” isn’t really what we consider luck on an everyday basis. It’s actually another way of saying that a team is either winning more games than they’re predicted to and that they’re “lucky” or that they’re losing more games than they’re predicted to and that they’re “unlucky.” A team that has a positive luck number is winning more than predicted. It's the opposite for a team that's losing more. Here’s what Iowa’s Luck looks like under Fran McCaffery and their overall ranking out of the approximately 350 other NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs:
Averaging those rankings out, Iowa checks in at around 265th in the nation in “Luck” under Fran McCaffery. Said another way: they lose a lot more games than they’re mathematically predicted to.
Finally, we come to…why? A couple of thoughts.
Seeking Mr. Clutch
When was the last time Iowa had a truly clutch player? The guy you could always count on to make a shot when it really mattered? Those types of players are pretty rare in college basketball but I feel like Iowa hasn’t had one in a disproportionate amount of time. As in: they haven’t had one since Matt Gatens. Think back on some of Fran’s most prolific players: Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok. Would you consider them clutch? They all had clutch moments but were they consistently making big shots over an extended period of time? I’d argue that they were scorers.
There may be hope for the future, though. Jordan Bohannon made noise last year with his fantastic game winner against Wisconsin. This season, he did the same against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament to send the game to overtime. Bohannon has a penchant for going full HE’S ON FIRE but his opportunities for game-winning shots seem to be few and far between. That leads me to…
The End of Game Situations
And this is what it really comes down to: Fran doesn’t do anything in the late stages of games. Thinking back to what I wrote after Iowa’s 84-82 loss to Indiana:
With 23 seconds left on the clock and a two point deficit, Iowa looked completely clueless on offense and was forced to call a timeout with 9 seconds in the game. Of note, the players called the timeout, not Fran. See, Fran’s philosophy is to always let his players “play through” adversity. Of course, that makes you ask the question of what he actually does as an in-game coach but hey maybe that’s a conversation for another time. Anyway, Iowa calls a “play” (if that’s what you want to call it), misses a couple shots and Indiana wins 84-82.
This has been one of the most constant and fair criticisms of Fran throughout his tenure. He doesn’t call timeouts to set up plays at the end of halves, much less the end of games. His belief is apparently that his players should figure it out on their own. The advantage of this strategy is that it doesn’t allow for defenses to set up. The disadvantage is that under Fran, with very rare exceptions, Iowa has empirically shown that they aren’t capable of winning games consistently using this strategy. Argue all you want but in the end, the numbers don’t lie.
So there you have it. One could hope that Fran will change his end of game philosophy but considering he’s been doing the same thing since 2010, I wouldn’t hold my breath. If there’s any cause for optimism, it would be looking at players like Bohannon and some of the incoming talent and believing that they have what it takes to close out games. Absent that, there isn’t any reason to think that Iowa will drastically improve in close games as Fran’s tenure rolls on.