The Tip-Off 2018: What the Hell Just Happened?

By Patrick Vint on November 6, 2018 at 10:00 am
"Beats me."

© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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It's eight months later, and I still don't know what happened to the 2017-18 Hawkeyes.  I'm not sure we'll ever know.

On paper, it was pretty simple: Iowa was one of the worst defensive teams in the nation.  Just one Power Six Conference program, Washington State, was worse on defensive efficiency last season.  Iowa allowed opponents to score 1.08 points per possession; the next closest Big Ten teams, Minnesota and Illinois, allowed 1.03.  Opponents shot an effective 53.5 percent from the field against the Hawkeyes, by far the highest effective field goal rate allowed in the McCaffery era.  The 37.6 percent opponents shot from behind the three-point arc was likewise the worst of the McCaffery era.  And while Iowa has never been particularly excellent as a defensive squad under Fran, the typical offsetting turnovers (and the easy baskets that came with them) vaporized last year.  Add it all up, and the second-most efficient offense of the McCaffery era led to 14 wins, four Big Ten victories, and an offseason spent trying to figure it all out.

In retrospect, we probably should have seen the problem coming.  If 2017-18 was the worst McCaffery defensive team -- and it was, by a large margin -- then 2016-17 certainly makes the podium.  That team was done in by lackluster rebounding more than anything else, but it also gave up 51 percent effectively from the field, and 35 percent from the perimeter to a bunch of three-point shooting teams.  That team lost one significant contributor, Peter Jok, and somehow got worse on defense the next year.  The five biggest contributors on that team around Jok were Jordan Bohannon, Nicholas Baer, Tyler Cook, Cordell Pemsl and Isaiah Moss.  All five of them were instrumental to the 2017-18 season.  All five of them are on the roster in 2018-19.


They don't look like it when you watch them, but Iowa and Michigan are built on much of the same philosophy.  John Beilein's teams move at a snail's pace, but like Iowa they have traditionally relied on highly efficient offense coupled with good-enough-but-not-elite defense.  Michigan's three-year run of top-16 national tournament seeds in the early 2010s featured top 20 offenses (the first Michigan runner-up was first nationally, the next season third).  None of those teams had an elite defense.  With offense like that, it didn't much matter.

Michigan posted another one of those seasons two years ago.  The Wolverines were fourth nationally in offensive efficiency, at a staggering 1.22 points per possession.  The defense allowed just under a point per possession, which had become a constant over the previous four seasons.  In 2013-14, a team with that profile had finished 28-9 overall, 15-3 in the Big Ten, and picked up a 2 seed on its way to the Round of Eight.  Just three years later, that team went 26-12 but managed just ten conference wins and garnered only a 7 seed.

Beilein, who had come to prominence with his 1-3-1 zone defense at West Virginia but had jettisoned it years ago when he deemed it ineffective, solved the puzzle that offseason.  No longer was it going to be good enough to simply out-efficient everyone with offense alone.  Instead, Beilein did something about it:

Beilein spent the 2016 offseason reconsidering how his teams competed, played defense and rebounded. Then he brought in a defensive-minded assistant coach in Billy Donlan.  

You could see the results in last year's team that made a run to the Sweet 16. You can really see the emphasis now.

It was evident Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, where U-M's rangy collection of ballhawks shut down one of the conference's best offensive attacks in the second half.  

"We guarded people," said Beilein after his team's 77-71 overtime win....

[T]hink about how differently this team plays, how it won despite making three 3-pointers.  

Last year's team likely doesn't survive the sort of offensive malaise U-M found itself in Thursday. Even Beilein wasn't sure what to say about what happened on that end of the court. 

That was taken from the Detroit Free Press's game story following the Wolverines' overtime win against Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament.  Michigan would win three more games that weekend to take the conference title, then five more over the next three weeks to advance to the national championship game.  They did it with a modestly-efficient offense -- Iowa was better on offense -- and the third-best defense in the nation.

Bielein, always an offense-first coach going back to his days at West Virginia, didn't suddenly learn defense.  Rather, he hired an assistant who specialized in defense, made him quasi-defensive coordinator, and let them do what they do best.  When it didn't work so great in the first year and the assistant left, he changed coordinators and did it again.  And he found his guy.


Iowa hasn't lost a high-level assistant since McCaffery came to town; Andrew Francis, Sherman Dillard and Kirk Speraw have been on staff since April 2010.  All three of those assistants have excelled in their respective roles.  This is not a post about firing assistant coaches, and that is not warranted.

Like Bielein, Fran McCaffery admits to being an offense-first coach.  “I’ve always been an offensive coach. I’ve always felt like we’ve got to be able to score the ball, especially at the end of the game," he told Mike Hlas last month.  That's what Fran has always been, and I'll take that over a defensive-minded head coach every year.

But where we saw Beilein admit his weakness and look for something to buttress his program against it, we didn't hear much substantive change from McCaffery.  After the season, McCaffery cited help defense and rotations as areas of weakness that carried through both halfcourt and transition defense, but his teams have run much of the same general defensive scheme since he came to town.  McCaffery admits it in the same interview, saying, "We’ve always played ball screens a certain way. We’ve always had success with it. Well, it wasn’t as successful last year, so maybe we’ll play ball screens differently."  With the ball screen such an important part of most college offenses today, everything stems from how they are defended, especially rotation and help defense after the obligatory hedge.

Figuring out what went wrong with basketball defense isn't easy.  Problems from single plays can be relatively easy to diagnose, but systemic issues aren't as simple.  Obviously, Iowa didn't identify the problems mid-season, or else we wouldn't be here.

But the five non-Jok players who struggled with defense in 2016-17 were five of the key players in last year's debacle, and will be five of the key players in this year's squad.  The same four coaches are coaching those players.  Sure, there have been some new faces on the roster, and there are again this fall.  But the coaches are the coaches, and the core of this team remains almost entirely intact, and Fran McCaffery is still looking at offense first.  Maybe this group really did need another year to understand how defense works, especially with a true freshman center as the anchor of its rotations.  Maybe Fran isn't letting on all the changes he's going to make.  And maybe that growth and those tactical adjustments combine to move Iowa back toward respectability, and we'll all look back at 2017-18 as an oddball fluke of a season that led Iowa toward something greater.

I'm only going to believe it when I see it, though.  For the first time in nine seasons under McCaffery, it feels like that lack of faith is justified.  And if Iowa still struggles on defense, and those struggles are met with screams and shrugs from the sideline, the faith isn't going to be the only thing missing from Carver Hawkeye Arena.

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